Louisiana citizens need to think about one question when voting in this year’s statewide elections: Is the state better off today than it was when Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and members of a new Legislature took office on Jan. 11, 2016?
When Edwards took the oath of office, he pledged to accept federal Medicaid dollars, restore education, fix the “lingering budget crisis” and support equal pay for women.
Three of those goals have been accomplished. He immediately expanded Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for poor and low-income Americans. With support from Republicans who control the House and Senate, the Edwards administration has been able to begin restoring funding to colleges, universities and K-12 education and stop annual budget shortfalls.
Legislative committees have annually rejected equal pay and higher minimum wage measures, even though polls have shown voters approve of both.
Edwards acknowledged during a statewide televised speech just prior to a 2016 special session that he didn’t run on a platform of raising taxes. However, he said the budget problems were much deeper than anyone expected.
The state had an $850 million gap in the fiscal 2015-16 state budget that was already in effect and a hole in the next year’s budget estimated to top $2 billion. Edwards said the state couldn’t continue to increase higher education tuition because college and university budgets had been cut by $700 million over the previous seven years.
That was the largest higher education budget reduction in the country. State funding at one time financed 70 percent of higher education, and tuition and fees made up the other 30 percent. When Edwards took office, the state contributed 30 percent and tuition and fees financed the other 70 percent.
The centerpiece tax of that special session was a temporary 1 percent, two-year increase in the state’s 4-percent state sales tax. It was estimated to raise $880.6 million annually for those two years. The tax would run from April 1, 2016, to June 30, 2018. The temporary two-year suspension of some tax breaks and exemptions, would raise the total of new revenues to $1.6 billion. The vote on the sales tax increase was 76-28 in the House and 29-10 in the Senate. The twothirds vote necessary to pass taxes is 70 in the House and 26 in the Senate.
Officials of the Louisiana Republican Party and its two major candidates trying to deny Edwards a second term never mention that it took 35 GOP members in the House and 16 in the Senate to approve the temporary 1 percent increase in the state sales tax. No taxes or revenues have been raised over the last four years without significant help from Republican lawmakers.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone of Baton Rouge, Edwards’ two challengers, have repeatedly blamed Edwards for tax increases. However, members of their own party control everything that happens in the House and Senate.
Legislative leaders knew a day of reckoning was coming when those temporary taxes went off the books on June 30, 2018. The first of three special sessions in 2018 failed to come up with a solution for the nearly $1 billion budget deficit that was expected.
Rising revenues from other taxes helped reduce the deficit, but the state was still expected to take in $648 million less in general tax dollars when a third special session began on June 18.
Rep. Paula Davis, a courageous Republican House member from Baton Rouge, took a leadership role and introduced a bill increasing the state sales tax by 0.45 percent. It would raise $466 million in the first year and $502 million annually until it expires on June 30, 2025.
Davis worked diligently to convince her House colleagues the tax increase was necessary to prevent more budget deficits. She came up 10 votes short of the 70 needed the first time, but the legislation was approved 74-24 in the House on her second attempt and 29-10 in the Senate.
The 0.45 percent increase wouldn’t have passed without the 32 Republican votes in the House and the 20 GOP votes in the Senate.
The sales tax increase and better returns from other taxes have made it possible for the Legislature to help the governor fulfill his education promises. K-12 teachers got a $1,000 annual pay increase at this year’s regular session, the first in 10 years. Public schools also got a $39 million increase in their funding formula, also a first for years, and $20 million has gone to early childhood education (birth to age 3) for the first time.
State general funds for colleges and universities increased in the current budget by $47 million, another first. Recent surpluses have also made it possible to give higher education millions of dollars for long-delayed maintenance of buildings.
Democrats and Republicans working together have given the state budget stability and made it possible to increase funding of education at all levels. Yes, we still have some major problems to solve, but Louisiana is in much better education and financial shape today than it was four years ago.