Even from reform advocates who should be natural allies of Gov. Bobby Jindal, the just-completed regular session of the Louisiana Legislature is getting mixed reviews. Blueprint Louisiana, a private initiative launched by business and civic leaders from across the state in 2006 (www.blueprintlouisiana.org), crowed about advances in the areas of education, workforce development and health-care reform. Meanwhile, the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR, www.la-par.org) lamented that 'the first regular session of this Legislature has closed with little in the way of substantial reform." Another reform group, the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL, www.cabl.org), agreed with PAR that legislative pay raises overshadowed almost all other issues and concluded that this session was not earth shattering.
We think Louisiana has made substantial progress on several fronts since January, but we've also taken some steps backward. We also think lawmakers and Jindal took several steps backward in the regular session. Here's an overview:
Workforce Development. Virtually everyone agreed that Louisiana's Department of Labor needed to be overhauled to make it more relevant and effective in pairing job opportunities with qualified workers. The legislation will take time to implement, but this is an important step forward.
Early Childhood Education. Lawmakers adopted and funded a universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, which will be phased in over the next six years (starting this year). This, too, is an important long-range reform.
Elementary and Secondary Education. Here, the results were mixed. Charter school advocates convinced lawmakers to expand the number of charters allowed in Louisiana from 42 to 100 (not counting those in the Recovery School District). While there is great potential in charter schools, they are not a silver bullet. Real advances in education will take time and a multi-faceted approach. One approach that we do not support is vouchers, which, unlike (public) charter schools, work directly against the concept of public education. Elsewhere, lawmakers approved a Jindal-backed measure to allow the teaching of 'alternatives" to evolution under the guise of 'science." The lead proponent of this measure, besides Jindal, is the Religious Right, and there's little doubt that Jindal supports this concept as a genuflection to the fundamentalist wing of his GOP base. This is not only a bad idea, but also a national embarrassment for Louisiana. As a biology major at an Ivy League college, Jindal should know better. One area of good news: public school teachers got a $1,000 across-the-board pay raise, putting them just above the southern average.
Higher Education. State colleges and universities got permission to raise tuition, and lawmakers fully funded higher education across the board " something they rarely do. On the other hand, area colleges and universities, which were hit hard by Katrina, struck out in the capital outlay bill. Postponing capital investments in higher education always leads to higher costs down the road. On a related front, lawmakers dedicated additional funds to community and technical colleges as part of the workforce development reform.
Taxing and Spending. Lawmakers voted to give taxpayers a break " next year. In 2002, we supported the so-called Stelly Plan, which lowered regressive sales taxes and raised progressive income taxes. Over time, the plan was designed to give the state a more predictable revenue stream, and it worked. For some, it worked too well. Lawmakers rolled back the Stelly income tax brackets for next year. At the same time, they and Jindal are bragging that they reduced state spending by several billion dollars. That's true only because the amount of federal dollars coming to Louisiana will be down next year. Meanwhile, state general fund expenditures are up by $1 billion " all of which will come from Louisiana taxpayers.
Ethics Reform. Lawmakers wisely scaled back the level of financial disclosure required of citizen volunteers who serve on many state boards and commissions. On the other hand, they failed to put more teeth into the enforcement of Louisiana's ethics laws, particularly by keeping the higher 'clear and convincing" burden of proof they imposed on ethics board prosecutions in February. Elsewhere, Jindal bottled up legislation subjecting his office to greater transparency " a decision that seriously undercuts his credentials as a reformer. Lawmakers also barred the ethics board from pursuing anonymous complaints " another step backward.
Legislative Pay Raises. As we noted in April, lawmakers could make a good case for a pay raise effective in 2012. Instead, they chose to razoo the pot right away, and now they're paying the price. Jindal has until July 8 to veto this ill-advised raise, and we repeat our plea for him to do so. Meanwhile, citizens should email him via the 'interact" menu on his Web site (www.gov.louisiana.gov) or call him toll-free at (866) 366-1121.
Clearly, lawmakers and Jindal have a lot of work to do in future sessions. That, it seems, is always the case.