Guest column: Investing in a post-pandemic recovery agenda

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Louisiana’s economy works best when it works for everyone – when all of us, regardless of family circumstances, have access to a safe and affordable place to live, a high-quality education and a good job that can support a family.

But the past two years have shown us, once again, that low-income families and communities of color often suffer the most when pandemics and natural disasters strike, and that the dream of an equitable economy where everyone has an equal shot at success remains elusive in a state with deep and entrenched poverty.

There are glimmers of hope in an unlikely place: the Louisiana Legislature. The state’s financial picture is currently the brightest it has been in a generation. An unprecedented influx of pandemic relief dollars, surplus funding and excess current-year revenue has given the Legislature more than $3 billion to spend with few restrictions.

With this in mind, the Louisiana Budget Project and its community partners asked ourselves a simple question: What would it look like to prioritize low-income families and communities with these dollars? What kind of investments could we make that would put our state on a path to a more equitable economic recovery?

A Recovery Agenda for Louisiana would provide direct financial support for frontline workers who risked their lives to keep our economy going during the pandemic. It would mean building deeply affordable housing and emergency shelters so we’ll be better prepared for the next disaster. It would mean laying the foundations for a paid sick leave program and universal pre-kindergarten, while also expanding critical services that help low-income families and at-risk youth.

We can do all this while also making Louisiana more competitive for additional federal funds included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in coming years. But these are not opportunities we can afford to waste, as we are unlikely to see this level of federal and state funding again anytime soon

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget recommendations to the Legislature would make meaningful progress on many fronts. Public school teachers and college faculty would get modest pay increases. There are critical new investments in higher education, including need-based college scholarships and the M.J. Foster Promise Program, which helps students from low- to moderate-income backgrounds train for jobs in high-demand occupations.

But there are important areas where the budget plan falls short, most notably in how it would spend the $3.4 billion in surplus “one-time” funding that won’t be available in future years. The governor’s plan calls for spending $500 million to bail out the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which can be replenished in other ways. And it sets aside money for a toll bridge that won’t be built for many years, when there are families and communities that need help today.

By reprioritizing some of the money earmarked for toll roads and corporate bailouts, the Legislature could help address Louisiana’s housing crisis and provide legal assistance to people facing wrongful eviction or foreclosure. Legislators could help people with low incomes reduce their utility bills through weatherization grants, and help make communities more resilient when the power goes out by providing new incentives for solar power and battery storage systems.

They could improve coordination and funding for services that help disconnected young people by ensuring that every parish has a fully funded Children and Youth Planning Board. And they could make additional investments in Louisiana’s youngest children by setting aside money in the Early Childhood Education Fund, to ensure that any local money raised for early care and education is matched by the state.

Louisiana’s budget picture is the brightest it’s been in almost two decades, but we’ve learned from past experience that these windfalls are likely to be temporary.

That’s why legislators should reject any temptation to spend the money on tax cuts that will only make it harder to balance the budget in future years. Instead, by prioritizing the families that need help the most, we can use this moment to build a more just and lasting economic recovery.

Jackson Voss is a policy analyst with the Louisiana Budget Project. Jan Moller is the LBP’s executive director.