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Monday, June 11, 2018

Editorial: Louisiana's Budget Must Do Right by Children

From The New Orleans Times-Picayune

By The Times-Picayune Editorial Board
June 10, 2018

As Louisiana lawmakers fight over fractions of a penny of sales tax in session after session, Louisiana children are struggling.

A pre-K class at Audubon Charter School on April 29, 2016. State legislators
have reduced funding for preschool over the past decade.
(Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com)

The latest report from Save the Children ranks Louisiana as the state with the worst conditions for children. Our state has high rates of infant mortality, violent deaths and teen births. We have too many children who lack sufficient food and too many children who fail to graduate from high school on time.

All of those poor measures put us at 50th in the Save the Children report, which was released May 30.

The ranking is no surprise. Louisiana is almost always at the bottom of rankings for the well-being of children.


Related

The United Way of Southeast Louisiana found that 46 percent of working families in the state make too little money to cover basic necessities, including food.

"They live above the federal poverty level but are forced to make tough choices like whether to pay for child care or to pay their rent. A single unexpected car repair, medical emergency or harsh storm can push ... families over the edge," United Way leaders said in a letter to the editor to NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune Friday.

That is why it is maddening to watch the Legislature starve children's programs of funding. The budget passed in the second special session of 2018 cut child welfare services, TOPS and higher education, all of which could put more pressure on young people.

TOPS has been a moving target in the past few years, leaving families unsure how much they can count on from semester to semester.

The House refused to approve enough revenue to balance the budget, leaving it at least $500 million short and leading to a third special session. The hundreds of thousands of dollars they've spent to pay for special sessions could have gone toward badly needed services.

Advocates for young children have asked lawmakers for $10 million in state funding for early childhood education programs that are essential to getting children off to a good start in school.


Related

There are 5,200 families on a waiting list for aid from the Child Care Assistance Program, which provides help for low-income working parents and for parents who are in school or job training. The program served almost 40,000 children 10 years ago, but only has money for 15,000 today.

Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, wanted to use part of the proceeds of the sale of unclaimed property to shore up the early childhood fund. But the treasurer wanted to use the money another way, and lawmakers rejected Rep. Carter's proposal.

The current budget does include additional federal money for the Child Care Assistance Program, which would reduce the waiting list by 4,000 children. But the program needs state funding as well to rebuild. Also, the budget as is could leave pre-K programs for 4-year-olds short of money for the coming school year.


Lawmakers talked in committee meetings about the importance of increasing access to quality preschool. They claimed to understand how valuable it is for families and for Louisiana.

But then they went back to arguing over whether to lower the state sales tax to 4.5 percent or 4.33 percent starting July 1, when a temporary 1 cent tax is set to expire. The standoff is over a difference of 17 cents on $100 purchase.

The Senate favors 4.5 percent because it limits the damage to TOPS, higher education and the other programs targeted for cuts but still cuts the budget. The House leadership has dug in on 4.33 percent -- even though most of their members voted for 4.5 percent.


The top House Republicans seem most interested in denying Gov. John Bel Edwards what he wants.

As they return to Baton Rouge this month for a third special session, they should consider what their stubbornness means to Louisiana families. Scoring political points against the governor isn't what is important. What matters is whether children in our state have a chance to thrive.

Every legislator should take to heart the plea in the United Way's letter:


"While these difficult decisions are being made, please remember that until all working people in this state are paid an equitable livable wage, we will need a strong safety net of social services to fill the gaps. ... In a global economy, the whole world is watching. We can encourage investment in Louisiana by investing in our own."

The letter ends by asking state leaders to have the "courage and confidence to do what is right for Louisiana families."

That ought to be easy to do.

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