Gov. John Bel Edwards and state legislative leaders agree that Louisiana’s education and transportation needs should take top priority when they start carving up the latest revenue windfall. But even though the state’s short-term financial projections are bright – with an extra $1.5 billion on hand over the next 18 months – leaders are urging caution as Louisiana faces a massive fiscal cliff in 2025. That’s when a temporary $0.45 cent state sales tax expires, and vehicle sales taxes are fully diverted from the state general fund. The Louisiana Illuminator’s Julie O’Donoghue reports:

One large expense legislators have repeatedly brought is the $300-million-plus still owed to the federal government for the hurricane protection system built around New Orleans and its suburbs after Hurricane Katrina. Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said there will likely be a push to use excess money to settle that bill.  … During his radio show last month, the governor said he intended to increase funding for child welfare staff in the Department of Children and Family Services .The Times-Picayune has run a series of stories detailing problems within the agency that have caused at-risk children to be overlooked. 

There’s a good chance legislators will also set aside money to address the state’s property insurance crisis. While the Legislature isn’t scheduled to convene until April 10, there is talk of a February special session where the focus would be on creating incentives for new insurers to enter the market. The Advocate’s Will Sentell reports: 

State Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has been pressing for a special session since late last year. Donelon, a former House member, said he wants to re-launch an incentive program to lure property insurers into the state. The move is also aimed at reducing the rolls of the hard-pressed Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run insurer of last resort.

New grades for state water systems
More than 450,000 Louisiana residents are served by water systems that received a D or F grade from the state health department. While the majority of grades were good – 776 out of 954 water systems, covering nearly 4 million people, earned an A or a B – leaders worry that some Louisiana communities could soon face the same type of water crisis that crippled Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi in recent years. The Advocate’s Faimon A. Roberts III reports: 

In Opelousas’ case, the city’s water system earned only 42 out of a possible 80 points. The biggest deduction was 15 points on its grade for “unresolved significant deficiencies” with the water system’s infrastructure. Another 10 points were deducted for federal water quality violations, defined as those that “may pose a health risk over an extended period of time,” according to the city’s LDH grade sheet. Other water systems around the state face similar problems. Finding and training staff to the proper certifications is also difficult. State officials have questioned whether many systems can continue to operate and encouraged systems to consolidate in an effort to generate more revenue and reduce demand for workers.

The grades are part of a new program the Legislature passed in 2021. Residents can find the grade for their water system by visiting the Louisiana Department of Health’s general grade information page

Restaurants workers pay to keep their wages low
An annoying fee charged to prospective restaurant workers is helping to finance a nationwide lobbying effort to suppress their wages. Millions of new restaurant workers are required to take an online food-safety class by a company called ServSafe. But as the New York Times’ David A. Fahrenthold and Talmon Joseph Smith explain, the company doubles as a fundraising arm for the National Restaurant Association who has actively lobbied against efforts to increase the minimum wage for decades. 

For years, the restaurant association and its affiliates have used ServSafe to create an arrangement with few parallels in Washington, where labor unwittingly helps to pay for management’s lobbying. First, in 2007, the restaurant owners took control of a training business. Then they helped lobby states to mandate the kind of training they already provided — producing a flood of paying customers. More than 3.6 million workers have taken this training, providing about $25 million in revenue to the restaurant industry’s lobbying arm since 2010. That was more than the National Restaurant Association spent on lobbying in the same period, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

More to education than scores
Last November, Louisiana’s top school board overwhelmingly turned back an attempt to toughen the requirement for schools to receive an “A” ranking. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote ended months of debate over new standards that were meant to address the disconnect between Louisiana students’ low performance on standardized tests and the high scores received by their high schools. But as retired professor James Taylor explains in a letter to The Advocate, the very idea of school letter grades may be misguided 

Perhaps there is more to quality education than scores and letter grades. If the goal is to create productive citizens who contribute to their community, support others and want to vote for issues to improve the common good, then it is time for us to encourage elected representatives to do more for the educators. They need to really talk with educators to learn what is needed to improve education. It is time to accurately define quality education rather than attaching numbers and letters to people and schools.

Number of the Day
39% – Percentage of Louisiana high school students that passed advanced placement exams during the 2021-22 school year. The number of students taking and passing advanced placement classes is almost identical to the last school year before in-person schooling was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. (Source: Louisiana Department of Education via The Advocate)