Historic session for education

Historic session for education

Louisiana’s financial picture heading into the 2022 legislative session was the rosiest it’s been in a generation because of an influx of federal pandemic relief dollars and better-than-expected tax collections. Education programs – from birth through college – were a primary beneficiary of this largesse. The Advocate’s Will Sentell examines the record-breaking legislative session for all levels of education. 

The Legislature approved an $84 million hike in state aid for early childhood education, which advocates called historic. State aid for colleges and universities rose $159 million, the largest funding increase ever for higher education. A nearly $32 million boost for faculty pay – the most in 16 years – puts the state on target to reach the regional average next year. “This year’s budget for higher education is one for the record books,” Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said when the nearly three-month session ended Monday night.

Despite the historic budget windfall, teachers only received a modest pay raise of $1,500. The raise’s spending power will drastically be reduced because of inflation and still puts Louisiana’s teacher salaries below the Southern regional average.

Why can’t we have nice things? 
Baton Rouge ranks low on a number of lists. Its traffic is the fourth worst in the nation (only behind much larger cities like Los Angeles, New York and Miami) and has one of the nation’s highest murder rates. But the Red Stick’s drinking water has always been among the nation’s best because the city is able to draw it from the Southern Hills Aquifer. Water from this pristine source requires little to no treatment to drink, as opposed to water sources that supply other communities, such as New Orleans, which gets its water from the Mississippi River. But now unchecked water use by the industrial sector is causing saltwater intrusion that could make the clean water source that supplies Baton Rouge and surrounding communities undrinkable for 500,000 people in six parishes. Sara Sneath, writing for Floodlight, the Lens and Louisiana Illuminator reports

In Louisiana, industry uses more groundwater than in any other state except California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. For decades industrial users have been able to pump water out of Baton Rouge’s aquifer effectively without limitations – no withdrawal caps on individual wells and no metering requirement, according to a 2019 report by the state Legislative Auditor. Some similar groundwater districts in Florida and Texas, in comparison, do restrict how much water can be withdrawn from individual wells. “People ought to come first, not Exxon and Georgia-Pacific. We ought to save it for the people,” said Russel Honoré, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General who leads an environmental group called the GreenARMY, based in Baton Rouge.

The saltwater intrusion from industry’s unchecked water use has been known for years, but for most of its history the commission that manages the aquifer was led by someone employed by one of the companies it regulates. This past legislative session, state Sen. Bodi White reintroduced a bill that was vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards last year to make it legal for employees of companies, such as Exxon, to be members of the regulatory board overseeing water use in the Baton Rouge area. That bill is now on Gov. Edwards’s desk.

Fighting surprise medical bills 
Legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy prevented 2 million predatory surprise medical bills in the first two months of 2022, according to a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. The “No Surprise Act” prevents surprise bills from both emergency and non-emergency care by requiring health care providers and insurers to settle disputes or hold arbitration without holding patients responsible. Cassidy joined USA Today for an interview on that legislation, the solvency of Social Security and soaring gas prices: 

“I’m over the moon about the impact,” Cassidy said in an interview with USA Today Network.  Cassidy said surprise medical bills totaling thousands or 10s of thousands of dollars have bankrupted countless patients who were unaware some aspect of their treatment was coming from out-of-insurance-network doctors or diagnostic services. “Too often patients have been blindsided by surprise medical bills, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars,” Cassidy has said. “This is a victory for them.”

Last month, Louisiana’s senior senator caught flak for his comments suggesting that Louisiana’s high rates of maternal mortality aren’t all that bad if you don’t count Black mothers. This irresponsible comment ignores the fact that social determinants of health play a major role in this shameful disparity. But as an Advocate editorial notes, Cassidy should have known better than to make such dense comments: 

The irony here is that Cassidy clearly does understand the issues he was discussing. More importantly, he’s got a record of actively working across the usual partisan lines to address them. Cassidy co-sponsored the Maternal Health Quality Improvement Act that passed as part of an omnibus spending plan, which supports training to prevent implicit bias in treatment. He was also a Senate author of a bill named for the late civil rights icon John Lewis to invest in research into racial health disparities in medicine. “As a doctor who worked in Louisiana’s charity hospital system, providing quality health care to underserved communities is a priority,” he said of that measure.

White House shifts money to vaccines, cutting other programs
President Joe Biden’s administration is shifting dwindling federal pandemic funds toward purchasing new, updated versions of vaccines (if they become available) and increasing access to therapeutic treatments. The change means less money will go to other public health programs. As the Washington Post’s Tony Romm explains, White House officials say the trade-off is necessary because Congress refuses to pass another aid package. 

“We will continue doing our part to protect the American people,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at her daily press briefing Tuesday. “We’ll use the few funds we have remaining to continue getting testing, treatments and vaccine out to Americans for as long as we can.” The urgent call to action from the White House stands in stark contrast with the mood at the Capitol, where the political appetite for adopting a new round of coronavirus funding appeared to diminish even before lawmakers focused on the deadly gun violence sweeping the nation. Behind the scenes, top White House aides still have labored to grab lawmakers’ attention, hoping to resurface the issue and break the increasingly costly political logjam.

Number of the Day
7.3 billion – Gallons of water Exxon pumped from the Southern Hills Aquifers in 2020 alone. This is enough to fill the Superdome’s bowl about eight times (Source: Floodlight, via the Louisiana Illuminator)