Budget surplus, but with caution

Budget surplus, but with caution

Louisiana likely finished the 2022 fiscal year with a budget surplus, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told the Louisiana Board of Regents on Tuesday, meaning legislators will once again have extra money on hand next year as they debate the state budget. But the extra money, which springs from the influx of federal pandemic relief dollars and better-than-expected tax collections, will probably not last. As The Advocate’s Will Sentell explains, Dardenne warned lawmakers against implementing any policies, especially in an election year,  that would cause the next governor to inherit a massive budget hole like Gov. John Bel Edwards inherited from former-Gov. Bobby Jindal. 

“You are going to have a lot of posturing going on,” he said. “We don’t think the Legislature ought to take any dramatic steps with regard to tax reform.” The House Ways and Means Committee last week launched a seven-month study on the possibility of eliminating the state income tax. Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, and other backers note that fast-growing states like Texas and Florida have no state income tax. Dardenne said the discussion has to include how the state would replace the roughly $5 billion in annual revenue raised by the state income tax on individuals and corporations. “Where are you going to replace that huge amount of revenue that gins the state budget?” Dardenne asked.

Student loan relief helps Louisianans  
Louisiana will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of President Joe Biden’s student debt cancellation plan, which eliminates $10,000 for most borrowers and $20,00 for Pell Grants recipients. In total, 40% of all Louisiana adults and 13% of the state’s population are eligible for the plan. Gannet’s Greg Hilburn provides more information on how Louisiana students can sign up for the relief and how the state’s high percentage of students eligible for Pell Grant forgiveness shows many of the benefits will go to working-class families. 

“This is about buying breathing room for a lot of working-class Americans who have invested in themselves,” [Jordan] Matsudaira (chief economist of the U.S. Department of Education) said. Matsudaira said 70% of student borrowers in Louisiana – 425,200 – will qualify for up to the highest amount of $20,000 as Pell Grant recipients. That compares to an average of 62% in other states. In all, 608,000 are eligible for some relief with 298,000 of those projected to have all of their student debt erased. “It underscores the fact that a lot of borrowers in Louisiana are coming from working-class families,” he said.

The root cause of the debt crisis in Louisiana continues to go unaddressed: More than a decade of deep state budget cuts to higher education. LBP’s state policy fellow, Richard Davis Jr., explains how lawmakers can protect future students from falling into similar debt traps by adequately and equitably investing in public higher education. 

Lack of data blunts U.S. response to outbreaks 
Decades of underinvestment in public health agencies created massive data gaps that severely inhibited the United States’ ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the nation’s low-vaccination rate is a major factor, experts also believe the lack of timely data also played a role in the U.S.’ highest Covid-19 death rate among large, wealthy nations. The New York Times’ Sharon LaFraniere outlines how ineffective our public health systems are at responding to outbreaks and the steps they have to take to even access data: 

Facing the wildfire-like spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant last December, for example, federal officials urgently needed to know whether Omicron was more deadly than the Delta variant that had preceded it, and whether hospitals would soon be flooded with patients. But they could not get the answer from testing, hospitalization or death data, Dr. Walensky said, because it failed to sufficiently distinguish cases by variant. Instead, the C.D.C. asked Kaiser Permanente of Southern California, a large private health system, to analyze its Covid patients. A preliminary study of nearly 70,000 infections from December showed patients hospitalized with Omicron were less likely to be hospitalized, need intensive care or die than those infected with Delta. But that was only a snapshot, and the agency only got it by going hat in hand to a private system. “Why is that the path?” Dr. Walensky asked.

Don’t be like Westlake
A new report uses a chemical explosion at a Lake Charles plant as a primary example why the federal government should toughen national safety standards and not rely on polluters to voluntarily improve their own facilities. Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform examined the Jan. 26 explosion at the Westlake Corp.’s Lake Charles South complex that injured six workers and forced thousands of students to hunker-down in their schools. The Houston-based company has a long track record of spills, fires and inspections, and despite numerous promises to improve safety standards, two of its most dangerous events have occurred during the past two years. The Advocate’s Tristan Baurick reports

The two environmental groups are pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enact proposed revisions to the Risk Management Program, which regulates about 12,000 facilities that store large amounts of hazardous chemicals near populated areas. While the program is supposed to prevent disasters, the groups note that an average of 140 harmful chemical incidents happen in the U.S. each year. The EPA’s proposed rules “do not go nearly far enough, and trust (Risk Management Program) facilities with an egregious safety record – like Westlake Chemical South – to voluntarily improve,” says the report, which was released Tuesday. Westlake declined to comment for this story. 

Number of the Day
70% – Percentage of student loan borrowers in Louisiana that qualify for Pell Grant forgiveness under President Joe Biden’s student loan cancellation plan, compared to an average of 62% in other states. These data show many of the benefits will go to working-class families. (Source: U.S. Department of Education via USA Today)