By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Louisiana is facing a $650 million dollar fiscal cliff and two previous special legislative sessions have failed to solve the dilemma, and so special session number three begins today, at a cost of about $60,000 per day.

Throughout this crisis the normal groups have been targeted and threatened for extinction: higher education and health care.  In May, 30,000 Medicaid recipients were threatened with eviction from nursing homes as their benefits were threatened.  The popular TOPS scholarship program has been targeted for deep cuts which has filled parents and students with anxiety. The latest threat is that the food stamp program for the entire state will be cancelled in January unless legislators find a solution to this budget shortfall.

In simplest terms, state democrats want to raise revenue through additional taxes while state republicans want to cut funding.  It’s a bit more complex than that, obviously, but that’s the crux of the issue:

Just hours after the second special session of the year ended, the Louisiana House Republican Caucus, which has positioned itself as the largest opponent to Edwards’ agenda, vowed it “will not waver” in the third.

“Since the first day of this legislative session and throughout the special session, the Louisiana House Republican Delegation has been crystal clear in its opposition to growing the size of government,” the caucus said in its statement. “We will enter into the upcoming special session laser-focused on reducing state spending and meeting the critical needs of the state. Our commitment to the taxpayers will not waver.”

Governor John Bel Edwards (D) wants to raise revenue through extending an expiring tax:

Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to give a short session-opening address about 5 p.m., urging lawmakers to agree to extend one-half of an expiring 1 percent state sales tax. House Republican leaders have been steadfastly opposed to the half-cent proposal and continue to push for a smaller fraction.

And so while both sides are steadfast in their positions, it seems, and unwilling to come to any compromise, we are spending around $650,000 million for each special session.

Makes perfect sense to me.

 

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia (Oct. ’18).  Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.

 By:  Pat Austin

Louisiana State Capital

SHREVEPORT – Louisiana is facing a $994 million fiscal gap if the legislature can’t break gridlock in the current special session which ends Wednesday.

Expiring sales tax laws are primarily the culprit for the shortfall but many contend that years of Bobby Jindal’s shell games are also partly to blame.

Whatever the cause, everything is now on the table for cuts: hospitals, law enforcement, higher education, college scholarships, you name it.

Republicans have a majority in both the House and the Senate, but votes are needed from both sides to pass any kind of legislation at this point that will break the gridlock that has crippled this session.

So far, little has been agreed upon but by the end of last week momentum began to pick up and the following bills were agreed upon by the House and moved to the Senate:

HB 3 by Rep. Frank Hoffmann, which would require able-bodied Medicaid recipients work or volunteer to keep their eligibility, although there is some wiggle room in terms of how strongly it would be enforced.

HB 2 by Rep. Tony Bacala, which aims to combat Medicaid fraud by allowing the legislative auditor access to recipient tax returns.

HB 27 by Rep. Pat Smith, which would implement a 60-cent-per-year tax for accessibility programs for the deaf.

HB 10 by Rep. Ted James, which would increase federal income tax liability by the amount someone’s federal income tax was lowered during 2016 or 2017 after claiming the federal standard or itemized deduction for certain net disaster losses. It’s supposed to help flood victims from the 2016 March and August floods.

It seems certain that the shortfall can not be resolved without higher taxes which has been the cause of much grumbling and discontent at the water cooler and there has been discussion on who would be paying those taxes.

For the second year in a row Louisiana is at the bottom of the list of states with sound fiscal stability.

Whatever the final outcome, the lasting impression of this special session has been one of sniping, finger-pointing, and impasse.  A typical day at the office for the legislature.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport; follow her on Instagram at patbecker25

 

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

That is the portion of the Declaration of Independence that Louisiana’s schoolchildren in fourth through sixth grades will now be required to recite daily at the beginning of school.

Despite the somewhat incoherent objections of Rep. Barbara Norton, the bill to recite from the Declaration was revived last week and has now passed the Louisiana House with a 70-23 vote.  It now heads to the state Senate.

Most schools in Louisiana still recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily, to my knowledge and experience, and now this mandate will require the recitation of this passage from the Declaration.  I have no problem with it, personally, however I can see objections on the grounds that it is a mandate.  As educators, we are drowning in mandates.  Teachers want the government out of their classrooms and be allowed to teach their content material.  I get that.

I see both sides of this one and perhaps leaving this optional, as the Pledge is, is the correct compromise.

On the grounds of content, however, I have no objection whatsoever.

You can see where this becomes a slippery slope, however.  Everyone wants to add their two cents:

Before the legislation passed, Rep. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, tried to get an amendment attached to the bill requiring that students also recite a portion of King’s “I have a Dream” in addition to that section of the Declaration of Independence. The House shot Price’s amendment down on a 45-51 vote.

Other amendments to have students recite the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which abolished slavery — and a speech from the women’s suffrage movement had also been drafted. But the Legislature voted to block those proposals from consideration on a 58-38 vote. So they weren’t discussed with the whole chamber.

Soon, the whole morning would be filled with rote recitation.

While I love the language of the Declaration, I think the best compromise is to leave this optional, leave it to the history and civics classes, and if a mandate is required to make the legislators feel useful and necessary, then leave the Founding documents in the language arts curriculum as part of the Common Core mandate.  We already have several required documents there.

The regular session ends today, so it is unlikely the bill will be addressed before the close of session, but I doubt we’ve heard the last of it.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Donald Trump isn’t a happy camper and is now threatening a lawsuit against the Louisiana GOP.  As you may recall, Trump won the Louisiana primary a few weeks ago, however, as I noted in my post on the election, there were a number of votes cast for candidates that had already dropped out which left those votes up for grabs.

As it turns out, Trump isn’t happy about how those delegates are being distributed.  According to KPLC:

The billionaire tweeted out Easter Sunday that he was not happy at how Louisiana delegates were divvied up, saying “lawsuit coming.”

Trump believes the process is unfair:

The executive director of the Louisiana GOP said Trump received 40 percent of the votes in the Louisiana Primary and received 40 percent of the delegates. He added the rules awarding delegates to presidential candidates on a proportional basis were adopted before Trump became a candidate for president and cannot be changed now.

New York Magazine explains it this way:

As explained in a recent Wall Street Journal report, while Trump beat Ted Cruz by 3.6 percentage points in Louisiana, the Texas senator may walk away with ten more delegates. Technically, Trump and Cruz won the same number of delegates, 18 each, but since Marco Rubio dropped out of the race, his delegates are now free agents. They’re expected to back Cruz, along with the state’s five unbound delegates. Cruz supporters also snatched up five of Louisiana’s six spots on the committees that will write the rules of the GOP convention, which could be key in determining the winner of a contested convention.

Dear Trump:  welcome to Louisiana politics.

 

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Some random observations from way down South this week.

Technically, Donald Trump won Louisiana in the primary Saturday, but my friends at The Hayride make the case that the true winner was Ted Cruz.  If you look at the Trump – Cruz gap and compare early voting to the results from Saturday’s primary, Cruz closed the gap by some 20 points on the heels of last week’s debate.

Looking at the official numbers, note also that Mike Huckabee got 645 votes; he dropped out February 2;  Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, also withdrawn, received over 6000 votes between them.  Christie got 401 votes. And interestingly, Marco Rubio showed quite poorly with only 11% of the vote.

The Hayride article is an interesting read.  Check it out.

In other notes:

Our political leadership is still in Baton Rouge in the attempt to plug our $900 million deficit gap and are closing in on the final days of their special legislative session. John Bel Edwards seems to be in way over his head but even given that, we can’t fully blame him for this budget mess.  This lies on the shoulders of Governor Bobby Jindal; Edwards may have a poor voting record that contributed to this mess, but it isn’t all his fault that we find ourselves now having to add pennies to the sales tax and threaten to shut the doors of higher education.

The proposed tax on alcohol failed its first go around last week but squeaked through in the Sunday session where it now goes to the Senate. You don’t mess with the liquor in Louisiana without upsetting some people. The one-penny sales tax was passed however, and since that worked so well, there is talk now of adding another ½-cent or another entire cent to the sales tax:

A proposal to raise Louisiana’s sales tax by not 1 but by 1½ or 2 cents instead emerged Friday as the potential solution to ending a budget crisis that threatens to cancel college classes and cut health care to the poor and the disabled.

The plan has the strong support of House Speaker Taylor Barras, who discussed it with Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday.

The beauty of the plan for the Republicans and the business lobbyists pushing it, is this: It would solve the short-term budget problem and keep lawmakers from trying to find more revenue by raising taxes on business. The plan presents a problem for Democrats, however, because raising sales taxes hits the poor the hardest.

Democrats, however, could soon be facing a choice of having to hold their nose and vote for an increase of 1½ or 2 cents of sales taxes or rejecting the idea and then seeing devastating cuts to public hospitals that serve the poor and to the state’s colleges and universities.

They are running out of time.  This Special Session must end by 6:00 p.m. on March 9.

 

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – We are more than halfway through the legislative special session in Baton Rouge meant to solve the staggering $900 million state budget deficit and there does not appear to be any clear or painless way to solve the crisis.

You might remember a couple of weeks ago when I reported on the financial crisis in Louisiana which led to newly elected governor John Bel Edwards and his staff promising to close down Louisiana State University among other schools, and to halt TOPS scholarship payments for students already enrolled. Panic raced throughout the state as the legislators convened in Baton Rouge to attempt to solve the crisis.

At this point, the universities are still open (thank goodness) and Governor Edwards says TOPS scholarships will be funded through the spring but next year is dubious. Minimum requirements to earn one of these scholarships will be based on some new astronomically high ACT score.

Team Edwards has been able to push through a new one-cent sales tax which is supposed to earn the state about $210 million in new revenue and giving us the dubious distinction of having the highest combined state and local sales tax rate in the nation. Governor Edwards has also picked up about $350 million by juggling money from one fund to http://theadvocate.com/news/14991870-184/louisiana-house-advances-1-cent-sales-tax-increase another. He’s also cut the Department of Education by $44 million – because apparently education hasn’t been cut enough.

Have no fear though: there’s no longer a work requirement for welfare and Governor Edwards has expanded Medicaid.

Still to come:  a new $0.22 per pack tax on cigarettes, a new tax of “a penny or two” on beer, wine, and liquor, and several measures to remove corporate loopholes and close several corporate tax exemptions.

It’s all pretty dire and even Moody’s has downgraded our credit rating for the first time in a decade.

But for now, the lights are still on and the doors are still open here in Louisiana.

 

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – When news broke this past Thursday that John Bel Edwards had halted all payments to the enormously popular TOPS college scholarship program, you could feel the panic and desperation throughout the state.  Thursday afternoon, February 11, word came down about the program via NOLA:

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget chief, Jay Dardenne, said the state will have to leave TOPS approximately $28 million short of what it would take to fully fund the program through the end of the semester. He said all public universities will be informed that they would not receive all their TOPS payment this spring.

Dardenne added that TOPS could only be fully funded this year if the Legislature agreed to raise taxes a lot — over a half a billion dollars — in the next couple of months. Even then, the Edwards administration would likely prioritize filling a shortfall in the Medicaid program before the college scholarship program would receive the money it needs.

The TOPS program began in 1989 and, in brief, it pays college tuition to in-state universities for Louisiana students who score a certain percentage on the ACT and who maintain a certain GPA. The intent was to keep our kids here in the state. Through the years the requirements have been tweaked with the GPA requirement now at 2.5 and the ACT score now at 20.  You can read more specifics here.

Now, there are a couple of things to look at in those two paragraphs from NOLA: first, Dardenne said basically that those students already enrolled in the spring semester are on the hook for the balance of the tuition they had been told would be paid through their scholarship. Literally what he said was that the colleges would “absorb” the cost of the unpaid balance.  Recall that higher education throughout the state has already been decimated by Bobby Jindal and there is no room to “absorb” anything. Students across the state went to bed Thursday night anticipating bills for the balances to hit their mailboxes any moment.

The second thing to note from that NOLA quote is that Dardenne indicated that even if the money to fund TOPS was found, it would instead go toward funding Medicaid rather than satisfying the promised TOPS debt.

Further: Just a week before the TOPS blackmail, Edwards called for an emergency special session to deal with the state’s budget shortfall and noted that a plethora of tax increases are on the table, to include:

Income tax hikes

Cigarette tax hikes

Sales tax hikes on leased property and some services

Business utility tax hikes

Alcohol tax hikes

Taxes on AirBnB and anyone else who rents out a spare room

Taxes on the oil and gas industry

In essence, what John Bel Edwards has done is use emotional blackmail on the students and families of this state for the purpose of raising taxes on everything he possibly can. Families went to sleep Thursday night in serious distress over the financial future of their child’s college education. It’s not that these people don’t want to get student loans or work their way through college – most would have been more than willing to do so, but the TOPS program had been promised to them and they scheduled every high school course with the understanding of what was required of them to earn this scholarship.  For the governor to threaten to pull the rug out from under their feet is unconscionable.

And so, the next day, word comes down that miraculously money has been found to fund TOPS through the rest of this spring semester, but next year? Not so much.  Considerations to continue the program suggest a required ACT score of 28 to earn the scholarship and cutting the funding from $250 million to $60 million – about 80% of the current scholarships would be eliminated.

As if emotional blackmail of our students wasn’t enough, Governor Edwards addressed the state on television to explain the crisis and his actions and he said that student athletes are also in danger.

Yes, he poked the sacred cow of LSU football.

He really went there.

As I mentioned earlier, if the legislature fails to act and we are forced to proceed with these cuts, the LSU Ag Center and parish extension offices in every parish, and Pennington Biomedical Research Center will close by April 1st and the LSU main campus in Baton Rouge will run out of money after April 30th, as will the Health Sciences Center in Shreveport and LSU Eunice. There is no money left for payroll after those dates. The Southern University System, and University of Louisiana System, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System are in the same boat: without legislators approving new revenue this special session, some campuses will be forced to declare financial bankruptcy, which would include massive layoffs and the cancellation of classes.

If you are a student attending one of these universities, it means that you will receive a grade of incomplete, many students will not be able to graduate and student athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester. That means you can say farewell to college football next fall.

The text of the speech can be found here.

You can only imagine the hysteria that caused. It seemed for a few moments there that we would totally implode. Never mind the kids’ scholarships!  Never mind the cuts to the New Opportunity Waiver program which helps families with developmentally disabled children, we can’t survive without football!

At the very least this damages recruiting efforts.  Who would want to sign with a university that may not have a program?

Edwards pushed every single button he could to incite fear and panic throughout the state.  Yes, it’s a real problem. We are broke.  But on the same day he also eliminated the work requirement from food stamps. Previously, recipients had to work twenty hours a week or be enrolled in a federally approved job training program.  Not anymore.

And so it didn’t take long for the recall talk to start.

There is a Facebook group, Recall John Bel Edwards, which currently has about 5,500 members. There is a Change.org petition to recall the governor established solely for the purpose of monitoring numbers and interest in a formal recall; this petition has over 14,000 signatures so far.  Over a million voters would have to sign a formal recall petition.

The bottom line is that the state is now in panic mode. Edwards said in his speech that these cuts “are not scare tactics. This is reality…” but people are scared.  Everywhere I’ve been over the past few days, you hear subdued and worried conversations about the cuts. People are angry that entitlement programs are being expanded while education is being cut.  People are angry at the emotional blackmail that if we don’t pressure our representatives to vote for the new taxes, everything will be cut. People are angry that there’s no talk of the billions in state contracts that will remain untouched.

State Treasurer John Kennedy gave the Republican response after Governor Edwards’s speech and he declared that we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. He rightly pointed out that these tax increases will wreck our fragile economy. Kennedy said he has sent over 400 ideas to the governor’s office to cut spending rather than raise taxes. In his speech, he listed six of those, which included auditing Medicaid fraud which currently exists to the tune of about $900 million dollars. He also suggested revising Medicaid so that patients stop going to the emergency room for things like acne or to see if they need glasses, or other such minor concerns that could be better handled in a doctor’s office. Kennedy also suggested cutting the statutory dedications and the 19,000 consultants currently on our payroll. He noted also that 22% of the managers in government manage only one person.

While everyone acknowledges that Jindal’s smoke and mirrors method of balancing the budget got us into this mess, nobody is willing to concede that sacrificing higher education and blackmailing our students and student athletes is a good plan. Neither is taxing everything. Republicans are going to be more willing to work with Edwards if he will at least consider cutting some of the entitlements and slashing some of the excessive spending in government.

These are dark days in Louisiana.  The special session convened yesterday and we are waiting with high anxiety to see the outcome.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – It would seem that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is off to a rather rocky start as he goes up against the majority Republican Legislature. It appears that the Republicans aren’t going to make life easy for Edwards.

On the campaign trail, Edwards wrapped himself in moderate clothes and won the votes of many Republicans; some of that, in part, was due to the fact that voting for David Vitter was just a peg too far. Many people believed Edwards when he promised to get rid of state education Superintendent John White, a proponent of Common Core.  That is not likely to happen now as Edwards has stacked the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education with White supporters.

Edwards won’t be fighting Common Core any longer either as just last week his office announced that he would no longer pursue the Jindal lawsuit against Common Core. Edwards says that the lawsuit is financially and educationally unnecessary as Louisiana has worked to rewrite the standards.

Immediately after that announcement, the Louisiana Attorney General, Republican Jeff Landry released a statement saying that as Attorney General, he is intervening in that case and only he will decide if that lawsuit goes forward or not, indicating that he is the one, and not the governor, who decides the legal course for the state.

Gov. Edwards has called for a Special Session of the Legislature later this month for the purpose of resolving the looming budget shortfall left by the Jindal administration. Edwards has laid out a staggering list of potential tax increases to solve the problem.  All of the usual tax increases are there including raising taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, income, utilities, property, and so on.

There are no proposals for welfare reform or to cut unnecessary staff and crony positions. As a matter of fact, those Jindal era staff salaries that Edwards criticized on the campaign trail?  He’s keeping those and raising them some.

Again, with a Republican-dominated Legislature, this Special Session wish list might just be a pipe dream, but if nothing else, Gov. Edwards has shown in just a few short weeks his true colors and any Republican that pulled the lever for him, thinking they were getting a moderate Democrat who shared their values, has been proven to be delusional.

 

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

By: Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – In just over a week, John Bel Edwards will take over the gubernatorial reins from Governor Bobby Jindal in what is being called a “low key” inaugural event. In the face of budget woes that are reportedly worse than anticipated, Edwards is keeping things simple on January 11.

The inaugural will include morning Mass, cannon fire, and a black tie ball, but he will forego any of the extra events of his predecessors; no free children’s festival or statewide BBQ this go around. Many pol-watchers are hoping that this signals an austerity approach from this administration and a real desire to attack the looming budget deficit.

Conversely, one of the first things Edwards will be doing is to halt Bobby Jindal’s policy move to seek a federal waiver in the SNAP benefits policy; back in October, Jindal declined to seek a federal extension for food stamp benefits for able bodied adults without dependents unless they have sought workforce training. To be clear, this is a group of about 31,000, able-bodied, non-disabled, low-income adults that do not have children or dependents in their household; people who should be able to work. The number of people affected was initially twice that, but since what they refer to as “Jindal’s starvation plan” was announced, over half have met the requirements or found work.

Jindal’s position was to offer workforce training to help them become employed – as long as they did that, they could continue SNAP benefits.  Edwards will terminate this policy and for about two or three weeks, these people may have SNAP benefits interrupted. Perhaps they too will find work in those three weeks.

As to the budget woes now facing Edwards, it appears that Louisiana must figure out a $750 million shortfall that must be filled by the end of June; of course tax hikes are on the table. At this point, it’s safe to say that all options are on the table. The blame for this falls on the Jindal administration who relied on short term, one time, budget fixes and refused tax increases. Jay Dardenne, chief financial advisor for Edwards, says of lower than expected state revenue collections for November, for example:

“I don’t have any explanation for why November was so dramatic, but it was. And those numbers have come in, and it’s been shocking to us to see the degree of shortfall in expected corporate income tax, the decline in sales tax revenue and the steady reduction in the price of oil,” Dardenne told reporters.

That decline in revenue, across months, combined with Jindal’s one-pot-to-the-other budget fixes over eight years explains, at least in part, why the state is in a budget free-fall.

John Bel Edwards has his work cut out for him. I would suggest that he start with looking at the tax structure and figuring out a way to attract businesses to this area. As our young people graduate our universities, they leave. There are no jobs here; we have only two Fortune 500 companies in the entire state. Oil and tourism can no longer be our main economy.

There’s a lot of work to do.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT —  Governor-elect John Bel Edwards has declared that Louisiana has given him a mandate to do what he wants, what he promised during the campaign, and he intends to govern just that way.  Among his first steps, as I outlined last week, will be working to enact the Medicaid expansion that Governor Jindal has resisted.  Another high priority for Edwards is to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 per hour.

Edwards vows that he will govern just as he campaigned and has no hidden agenda.  So far he is making plans to do just that.  I can’t help but think of Obama’s campaign where to too made promises that he vowed to keep, like destroying the coal industry.  Making and keeping promises isn’t always a good thing; one hopes that sometimes policy decisions may be re-evaluated.

Raising the minimum wage will only serve to force employers to pass costs on to consumers and in some cases will encourage employers to hire fewer employees thereby increasing the unemployment rate which is Louisiana is at about 6%.  But it’s okay if you lose your job because Edwards transition team is looking at reinstating SNAP benefits to 64,000 out of work people.

As Edwards works to get his teams and people in place, the question of who will be speaker of the House is drawing some interest.  Edwards has endorsed Democrat Walt Leger, citing in part the idea of bipartisanship.

“This time we’ll have a Republican president in the Senate (John Alario, R-Westwego) and a Democrat as speaker. I’m not asking for anything I didn’t agree to eight years ago. It’s entirely the same approach to bipartisanship.”

I’m pretty sure he said that comment about Alario being a Republican with a straight face, but it’s hard to tell.  Alario is about as Republican as Barack Obama is.

It remains to be seen how Edwards will govern and I know he has some plans toward education in the state that are positive, so I’m going to try to keep an open mind.  I would hope that rather than raising minimum wage and upping food stamps that Edwards would work to enact tax incentive policies and reduce government waste in efforts to bring jobs back to Louisiana.  Our bread and butter is the oil and gas industry and we need to keep those industries healthy and thriving which will also help support those small businesses which feed off of them.

Raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, and upping food stamp benefits is only a Band-Aid.  We need jobs.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.