With the state budget bills already in the rear-view mirror, the Louisiana Legislature wrapped up its regular session on Monday with less drama and frantic flare than usual. Lawmakers arrived in Baton Rouge with record amounts of revenue to spend because of an influx of federal pandemic relief dollars and better-than-expected tax collections, which they used to give modest raises to teachers, college faculty and some low-paid state workers and to spend heavily on transportation projects and other infrastructure needs. But legislators also missed a rare opportunity to give back some of the windfall revenue to families that need help. The Advocate’s Tyler Bridges, Mark Ballard and Sam Karlin recap the session:
Lawmakers approved a $1,500 annual pay raise for K-12 public school teachers, a $750 pay hike for school support workers, $31 million more in salary for state higher education faculty and increases in the starting wages for prison guards and child welfare workers. The $31.7 million increase for faculty pay is the largest in 16 years and is part of a two-year effort to lift salaries to the Southern regional average. Colleges and universities are getting a $159.2 million hike in state aid – the largest ever – and a 12% increase over last year. A new bridge over the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge – yearned for by a generation in the Capital Region – gets $300 million to start the projects that eventually may cost $3 billion.
While the financial windfall served to mute some disagreements, the LSU Reveille writes that higher education took some steps backwards, as legislators approved a resolution aimed at curbing academic freedom:
Tenure is foundational to intellectual freedom in higher education, allowing faculty to explore projects and research without fear of reprisal from corporations, special interests or the government. Opening it up to review from a Legislature that has repeatedly beaten back progress for the university over the years is a plan doomed to fail. And it’s not hard to imagine that these looming threats to academic freedom could steer talented faculty away from the university, if they haven’t already. … The university could be a powerful special interest that offers an end to the goal lawmakers claim to hold: to move Louisiana up endless lists of poor rankings in education, health, and quality of life. Instead of wielding this power to its full potential, the president and the Board of Supervisors stand idly by while lawmakers steamroll principles that are integral to the university’s mission.
Lawmakers must redraw racist maps
A federal judge on Monday ordered Louisiana’s Legislature to redraw the state’s congressional map so that it accurately reflects the demographics of the state. The map that the GOP majorities approved in February failed to add a second majority-minority district in a state where one-third of residents are Black, but 5 out of 6 congressional districts are majority white. Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a Monday press conference that he will quickly call lawmakers back into session to redraw the maps. While the decision is a victory for civil-rights and voting advocates, the fight is far from over. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard and Sam Karlin report:
One of the plaintiffs, Edgar Cage, a New Orleans voter and organizer with the advocacy group Together Louisiana, said: “I’m not surprised because the Census speaks for itself, and the reason for the Census is to reflect populations and give groups a chance to elect a candidate of their choice.” “The court proceedings aren’t over,” said state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who as chair of the Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee played a large role in how the new maps were drawn. “We’ll let the process continue to work. I assume her ruling will be appealed.”
Louisiana selected to expand broadband internet
Last year’s American Rescue Plan Act included a $10 billion fund for expanding access to high-speed internet. The program was aimed at bringing affordable broadband service to all homes and businesses in the country. On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Louisiana will be one of the first four states to receive these awards. State officials believe the $177 million Louisiana is receiving will provide internet to approximately 88,500 homes that currently do not have access. States Newsroom’s Allison Winter has the story:
Those working on the program say this new push of funding and programs from state and federal governments represents a new era. Gene Sperling, the White House American Rescue Plan coordinator, said he has been working on various efforts to close the digital divide since the Clinton administration and has never seen anything like what is happening now. “Without question there has never been anything like a pandemic to create a national teaching moment that we cannot have equality unless all Americans have access to high speed affordable internet,” Sperling said.
Electric bills rising as temps increase
An estimated 150,000 people in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge regions live in areas with a “high energy burden,” meaning more than 6% of their annual income goes to pay their energy bills. The pelican state consumes more natural gas than all but two states, and now, as the summer heat bears down on South Louisiana, higher natural gas prices could lead to higher electricity bills. The Advocate’s Robert Stewart reports:
Entergy Louisiana on Friday said bills for its 1.1 million customers could climb by an average of $25 due to natural gas hikes and storm restoration costs. Rates for DEMCO, the Baton Rouge area’s other major power supplier, are likely to rise as high as 10%. Lafayette Utilities System also foresees increases that could linger for months, and Cleco said its charges are going up next month. … Given the high demand for power and the volatility in natural gas markets, the rates are likely to stay high for the foreseeable future, [LUS Director Jeffrey] Stewart said. “I think we’re going to see this for the coming months,” he said. “It’s not going to be a short-term increase.”
Number of the Day
29% – Percentage decrease in housing affordability nationwide over the past year, the sharpest drop on record (Source: National Association of Realtors, via Axios)