Louisiana editorial roundup
By The Associated Press
Sep. 13, 2017
Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans on state lawmakers fully funding the TOPS scholarship program:
After cutting TOPS by 30 percent to help balance Louisiana's 2016 budget, lawmakers found enough money to fully fund the $300 million scholarship program this year. That was a relief to the almost 51,000 students who count on TOPS to help pay their college expenses.
The question now is how to stabilize the program going forward.
Lawmakers made no structural changes to TOPS during the spring legislative session, but they set up a task force that started Wednesday (Sept. 6) looking for ways to keep the program viable and affordable.
This is a vital task. Students shouldn't wonder from year to year how much they will get from TOPS. But it's also doubtful the state can afford the program as it is currently defined.
TOPS, which is almost entirely funded through the state general fund, initially was meant to help lower-income students make it to college. The scholarship was an incentive for students to take college prep classes in high school and be able to afford higher education.
But lawmakers have made dozens of revisions to TOPS over the past two decades, morphing it into a fundamentally different program. Sujuan Boutte, executive director of Louisiana's student financial assistance office, told the task force Wednesday that lawmakers have made 75 adjustments to TOPS since 1998. Most of them expanded the program.
"Historically, there have not been a lot of changes to restrict or limit the program," she said.
That explains the results of a 2016 Cowen Institute study, which found that nearly 40 percent of TOPS awards go to families with annual incomes of $100,000 or higher.
The House fiscal office found that the share of TOPS scholarships going to families earning $150,000 and above has almost doubled over the past decade. In 2005-06, those families made up 10.6 percent of TOPS awards. By the 2014-15 academic year, that group had grown to 20.4 percent.
During that same time, many middle class and poor families lost ground. The percentage of TOPS awards going to students from families earning between $35,000 and $99,000 fell, the House fiscal office found.
If the state limited TOPS to families with incomes of no more than $50,000 it would cut costs by at least two-thirds and save $180 million a year, the Cowen study found.
That income threshold may be too low, but the task force should look hard at some kind of limits. There is sentiment for that. An LSU poll done in February and March found a majority of residents supported an income cutoff for TOPS. Fifty-six percent of people surveyed favored capping income so that wealthier families are ineligible.
But many of them didn't want to cut out middle class students. Fifty-two percent said they opposed using TOPS only for low-income students.
The Cowen Institute looked at what other changes would do to TOPS recipients. For example, increasing the minimum grade point average from 2.5 to 2.75 would make 22 percent of students ineligible statewide. The impact would be greater in New Orleans, where 28 percent of students wouldn't be able to qualify.
Raising the minimum ACT score required for TOPS from 20 to 21 also would significantly reduce the number of students who are eligible and would disproportionately affect African-American students, the Cowen report said.
Those are sobering statistics, and they show the balancing act required by the legislative task force.
"Without TOPS, many of our best students could not afford college. Even in a time of state budgetary constraints, college access for our youth should remain a moral and economic imperative for the long-term prosperity of our state," Cowen Institute executive director Amanda Kruger Hill said when the study was released.
The TOPS task force must figure out how to do that without busting the budget.
The Advocate of Baton Rouge on a project involving the renovation of a former city police building and incorporating it into a Department of Public Safety and Corrections campus:
The phrase "brother-in-law deal" wasn't intended as a substitute for the Public Bid Law, but try explaining that to the insider-dealers of the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
The state's Legislative Auditor's Office tried. It got 15 different arguments about why the department flaunted its disobedience to the law for a construction project in downtown Baton Rouge.
The $6.3 million project involved renovating a former city police building and incorporating the facility into the Department of Public Safety and Corrections campus on Mayflower Street. It now houses Prison Enterprises, a profit-making arm of the corrections agency, and a credit union that is technically private but which shares much of its leadership with the corrections department.
The Advocate in December published a story that questioned whether the project should have been publicly bid; corrections officials insisted no bids were required. The newspaper's story also noted that lucrative pieces of the job went to two allies of Jimmy LeBlanc, who runs the corrections department at the appointment of Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Nothing new about the latter. The interlocking directorates of DOC, Prison Enterprises, nonprofits related to the state prisons — all are involved with family members or other close connections to LeBlanc and Burl Cain, the longtime head of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Cain is now retired but the dimensions of the brother-in-law deals are becoming ever more prominent.
The design work was done by a Baton Rouge firm whose president is married to LeBlanc's niece. His son-in-law is a key official at Prison Enterprises. The construction itself was largely done by inmates who were overseen by Gary Shotwell, a recently retired prison official who was a deputy to LeBlanc when LeBlanc was warden of Dixon Correctional Institute. Shotwell, who also did work on LeBlanc's private home in Jackson, said corrections officials approached him to offer the no-bid work, for which he earned $10,000 monthly.
The law requires competitive bids, the auditor's office reported. The department replied that officials relied on an executive order signed by former Gov. Bobby Jindal that authorized the use of inmate labor — and thus eliminated the need for public bidding — for certain jobs. But auditors said that order was only applicable to work on buildings meant to house inmates.
What is an exception to the bid law? Projects under about $150,000 and this was many times that amount. Surely, no one thought anything curious about that at DOC. The brother-in-law deal is more than policy there, and more akin to Holy Writ.
"None of management's assertions ... change the fact that the Public Bid Law applied in this case and was not followed," the audit says flatly.
Why is anyone surprised?
Daily Comet of Thibodaux on SWAMP getting $19.5 million in fine money from the 2010 BP oil spill to help track performance of coastal restoration projects:
The System Wide Assessment and Monitoring Program — or SWAMP — doesn't have an exciting name.
But it has a vital mission, and it has some new resources for achieving it.
The program, administered by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, is in charge of keeping track of how well our coastal restoration projects are performing.
And SWAMP just got $19.5 million in fine money from the 2010 BP oil spill to help it do its job.
That is good news for all of us.
"This is a significant milestone for our adaptive management program and will result in comprehensive long-term monitoring across coastal Louisiana," CPRA Chairman Johnny Bradberry said. "These funds will be put to immediate use to complete the final increment of the SWAMP program from Bayou Lafourche to the Louisiana-Texas border."
As important as it is for Louisiana to implement an urgent plan for coastal restoration and flood protection, it is just as important that taxpayers and others know that the money spent on these projects is doing the best job it can.
That means each project should return a dividend on the initial investment in terms of slowing land loss, building new ground along our fragile coast or protecting people and buildings from storms — and it must do so while protecting the important natural resources that are already here.
The great development here is that the program will have more money to keep track of the work that has begun and that will be coming in the future.
The monitoring will keep an eye on things such as water quality, hydrology and other environmental and economic factors as our coastal plans progress.
The monitoring is essential.
First, it will make sure our finite stream of money — which will likely never be adequate to fully address the challenges we face — is spent wisely and for the greatest impact with the smallest disruption.
Second, though, it will offer a thorough accounting of where the money has gone and what it has accomplished.
This is a big consideration for a region that has had to fight for every dollar it has received and will receive to fight its coastal battles.
Third, careful monitoring can help the experts hone their knowledge of the complex forces at work in the erosion and eventual repair of our coast.
Anything that improves our ability to fight the war — that will determine our ability to continue living and working in south Louisiana — is a welcome change that can only help us in the long run.