Simplifying tax code, education, expanding criminal justice reform topped agenda

Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state is in a good financial position after the budget crises of the past. (Photo by Catherine Hunt / LSU Manship School News Service)
Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state is in a good financial position after the budget crises of the past. (Photo by Catherine Hunt / LSU Manship School News Service)

BATON ROUGE — Buoyed by billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief aid, Louisiana legislators took on several big issues this spring and made progress in simplifying the tax code, supporting education and expanding criminal-justice reform.

Some public-interest groups praised the tax changes as important steps toward strengthening Louisiana’s economy, while others expressed concern that some of the changes could lead to a budget crunch down the road.

The Council for a Better Louisiana viewed the main changes—lowering state income tax rates for individuals and corporations and eliminating deductions for what they pay in federal income taxes--as “a positive step forward,” while noting that it was only the beginning of righting a complicated, messy system.

Gov. John Bel Edwards indicated after the legislative session ended that he would support this swap in the source of state tax revenues as long as it does not cost the state much in the short run. The changes would require adjustments to the state Constitution, and if he signs the bills, residents will have to vote on them in October.

The Public Affairs Research Council said that if voters approve, the state’s tax structure will become “simpler, fairer, more competitive, and better-ranked nationally.”

But the Louisiana Budget Project, which researches how state policies affect the poor and the working class, issued a statement warning that lawmakers were relying too heavily on federal relief dollars that will soon be gone.

The group’s executive director, Jan Moller, supported the “excellent premise” of the tax swap, but bemoaned the way it was executed.

“Unfortunately, our lawmakers missed an historic opportunity to fix Louisiana’s broken tax system,” Moller said. “Legislators could have used the revenue gained by eliminating this deduction to make new investments, or to reduce racial disparities in our tax system by reducing the state sales tax. Instead, they used the revenue to cut income-tax rates for individuals and corporations.”

Moller also questioned a bill that was passed late in the session to gradually raise up to $300 million a year to improve roads and bridges.

The bill dedicates an existing tax on the sale and lease of motor vehicles to a state construction fund. But in doing so, it would shift $300 million out of the state’s general fund, and that could lead to reductions in spending on health care and higher education if the state runs into another budget crunch, Moller said.

Gov. Edwards said he shared that worry. He said he would examine the bill carefully before deciding whether to sign or veto it.

Edwards has already signed a $38 billion state budget bill. Given all the federal aid, and higher-than-expected state tax collections, it represented what the governor called “one of the best budgets in 15 years” and “a far cry from past years” when the state faced a financial crisis.

Here are some of the highlights from the budget and other bills passed during the session:

Unemployment Checks

The Legislature voted to raise the state’s unemployment wage by $28, to $275 a week, starting next year, if Edwards ends temporary federal unemployment benefits, which equate to $300, by July 31.

Edwards indicated he would make that deal to help raise the overall state benefit level, which, he said, is among the lowest in the country.

K-12 Education

K-12 public-school teachers will each receive an $800 pay raise, and school support workers will receive $400, inching them toward the Southern regional pay average. Kindergarten will become mandatory for five-year-olds with some exceptions.

Higher Education

Public universities and colleges will share in additional monies, with $19.8 million pay increases for professors that could average 2% to 2.5% or more.

Edwards also touted an $11.1 million increase in GO Grant funding for needy students and the creation of the M.J. Foster Promise Program to provide workforce training for Louisiana adults. He said total need-based need had increased four times, to $40 million, since he became governor.

Sexual Assault Reporting

After a scandal involving LSU football players, legislators created new regulations for how colleges deal with allegations of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct, including a requirement to fire employees who fail to properly report the allegations.

Sports Gambling

Legislators passed three bills that structure how the state will welcome gambling on sports events. Bets can be placed online, in casinos or on kiosks at restaurants and bars.

Part of the funds collected from the taxation will go to the Early Education Fund. The state hopes to begin taking bets before the upcoming football season.

Marijuana Decriminalization

Edwards said he is “interested” in signing Rep. Cedric Glover’s bill that decriminalizes marijuana.

Glover, a Shreveport Democrat, authored the bill that makes possession of a half-ounce of the plant a misdemeanor summons without the threat of arrest. The fine could be as much as $100.