Corporate property tax exemptions have taken billions of dollars away from local school districts across the country. Louisiana, which has arguably the most generous – or expensive – property tax exemption program in the nation, provides a clear example of the damaging effects of depriving districts of valuable revenue. Route Fifty highlights a three-month investigation that looks at what happens when elected officials prioritize corporate tax breaks over local schools.

Tax abatement programs have long been controversial, pitting states and communities against one another in beggar-thy-neighbor contests. Their economic value is also, at best, unclear: Studies show most companies would have made the same location decision without taxpayer subsidies. Meanwhile, schools make up the largest cost item in these communities, meaning they suffer most when companies are granted breaks in property taxes.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, where the local school board routinely grants property tax abatements to the petrochemical industry, school buses often lack air conditioning and parents fight for basic amenities like playground equipment. 

Fairleigh Jackson pointed out that her daughter’s East Baton Rouge third grade class lacks access to playground equipment. The class is attending school in a temporary building while their elementary school undergoes a two-year renovation. The temporary site has some grass and a cement slab where kids can play, but no playground equipment, Jackson said. And parents needed to set up an Amazon wish list to purchase basic equipment such as balls, jump ropes and chalk for students to use.

Sticking up for hungry kids
Elected leaders are pleading for Gov. Jeff Landry’s administration to join a federal summer feeding program before a Thursday deadline. The “Summer EBT” program, paid for with federal dollars, was launched to combat rising rates of hunger during the summer months, when children lose access to school meal programs. But Landry’s administration announced last Friday that Louisiana, a state with high rates of food insecurity and child poverty, would reject the federal funding. The Louisiana Illuminator’s Greg LaRose reports on the last-ditch effort:

The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus followed (state Sen. Cleo) Fields’ letter with its own pointed statement Wednesday on what it called a “misguided decision” to refuse the food aid. “This callous refusal to accept federal assistance perpetuates a cycle of poverty and food insecurity that should be unacceptable in a modern and compassionate society,” the caucus said in its statement.

U.S. Rep. Troy Carter recently criticized the decision

“The governor’s decision to turn down federal resources to feed children is unconscionable and it is ridiculous to assert that denying them food will somehow break the cycle of poverty,” Carter said in a statement Saturday. “This decision will hurt our most vulnerable children and should be reversed immediately.” 

“Ecosystem collapse” in Louisiana’s wetlands
Louisiana could lose three-quarters of its coastal wetlands by 2070, according to a new study by a group of Tulane University scientists. The authors explain how the state’s wetlands, which provide a buffer from hurricanes and a diverse ecosystem for wildlife, are being drowned from surging sea levels that weren’t expected until the end of the century. The Washington Post’s  Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney report

The news is dire for a state that has already lost over 2,000 square miles of wetland area since 1932, bringing the ocean ever closer to New Orleans and other population centers and leaving them more vulnerable to storms. Louisiana has launched major efforts to restore its coastal wetlands, replete with billion-dollar expenditures and massive engineering projects — but the state could also use a little help from the Earth itself. The new research suggests the opposite is happening. 

Reality check: The carving up of Louisiana’s wetlands by oil and gas companies has played a critical role in the state’s land loss. But Gov. Jeff Landry wants to merge the state agency charged with overseeing coastal restoration efforts with the Department of Energy and Natural Resources to make it easier for oil and gas companies to operate. 

New Orleans nurses fight for representation
Nurses at New Orleans’ University Medical Center voted to unionize last fall in an effort to boost their pay and benefits, improve the quality and safety of working conditions and have more input in decision making. Nurses also noted the harmful side effects of the Crescent City’s “health care duopoly” that is dominated by two corporations – LCMC Health and Ochsner Health. Capital and Main’s Jesse Baum reports

“A pretty substantial body of research has found specifically that when hospitals merge, it raises prices. But there’s less clear evidence of hospital mergers leading to improvements in the quality of care,” says Zachary Levinson, a project director at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who researches the impact of hospital mergers. … Meanwhile, LCMC CEO Greg Feirn had posted an annual salary of $2.5 million in 2021. The implication was clear, says UMC observation unit nurse Tatiana Mukhtar. “Our focus as nurses is taking care of patients, and their focus is making a profit.”

Number of the Day
594,000 – Number of Louisiana children that would be affected by Gov. Jeff Landry’s refusal to join a federal program that provides meals during the summer months. (United States Department of Agriculture via the Louisiana Illuminator