Jeff Landry officially becomes Louisiana’s 57th governor on Monday, and he inherits a state government in far better shape than the one John Bel Edwards took over in 2016. But he faces a slew of critical challenges – longstanding ones such as endemic poverty and decades of underinvestment in education, and shorter-term crises such as unaffordable property insurance and the upcoming fiscal cliff. An Advocate editorial explains the critical juncture Louisiana is in.

It’s hard to remember the last time a Louisiana governor took office under such auspicious circumstances. That’s not to say Landry has an easy job ahead of him. Louisiana’s problems, as documented in these pages for years, are deep and structural. Efforts to enact real, long-lasting change often feel like two steps forward, one step back.

The Times-Picayune | Baton Rouge Advocate’s Tyler Bridges has a lengthy profile of the new chief executive that chronicles his rise from an indifferent student who attended segregated proms to a sharp-elbowed politician who learned the trade from a longtime sheriff and a former state senator. 

He would start his own business, finally graduate from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), marry into one of the richest families in Iberia Parish and lose his first race. But in 2010, he broke through by winning a congressional race that would enable him to knock off the incumbent attorney general five years later. Along the way, he would demonstrate an ability to see political opportunities that others missed and use his Cajun charm to ingratiate himself with older wealthy men who would finance his campaigns.

The Illuminator’s Greg LaRose drove to Amite, where Edwards gave a farewell speech last week and talked about the “easiest big decision” he made as governor: expanding Medicaid eligibility on his first full day in office. 

According to his administration, more than 500,000 additional people have access to government-backed health care insurance. Rural hospitals in Louisiana have been able to stay open as a result, with Edwards noting facility closures in neighboring states that didn’t accept additional Medicaid assistance provided in the federal Affordable Care Act. Landry has said he intends to retain the Medicaid expansion and is considering copayments and work requirements for enrollees.  

Crisis-pregnancy funding change
Louisiana’s ability to shift federal dollars intended for poor families to controversial crisis pregnancy centers could change because of a proposed rule from the Biden administration. Louisiana is one of at least five states that directs federal funding from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to a highly unregulated industry that counsels women against abortion and promotes abstinence-only approach to sex education. The Times-Picayune|Baton Rouge Advocate’s James Finn explains how a lack of accountability is a major sticking point for opponents of crisis pregnancy centers. 

“There aren’t metrics measuring, one, whether or not these services were resulting in healthier births,” said Michelle Erenberg, Lift Louisiana’s director. “But more specifically for TANF, the goal was to prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies. And there’s been no metric of any sort evaluating whether these pregnancy centers were having any impact on those pregnancies.” … “If the purpose (of the centers) is to produce healthy outcomes for all pregnancies, show that to me,” [state Rep. Aimee] Freeman said.

Louisiana lawmakers created an income tax credit for crisis pregnancy centers during last year’s legislative session. Sen. Beth Mizell’s Act 437 could cost the state as much as $5 million each year and makes donations to the unregulated industry far more lucrative than gifts to other charities. 

Minimum wage is up, but not here
Nearly two dozen states raised their minimum wage on Jan. 1, and three other states – Nevada, Oregon and Florida – will see increases later this year. But not Louisiana, which remains one of only five states without a minimum wage law on the books and still defaults to the meager federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Louisiana Radio Network’s Teiko Foxx explains the effects of state leaders’ refusal to address the inadequate minimum wage. 

“Far too many of the jobs in Louisiana doesn’t pay the rate so we have still far too many families in Louisiana who are working really hard often at multiple jobs and they’re just not getting ahead because the wages in Louisiana are so low.” [said LBP executive director Jan Moller] … Moller says Louisiana continues to lose population as many search for higher wages. He says for the Bayou State to be more competitive, a higher minimum wage is needed.“ The most basic policy change that the state could make would be to establish minimum wage at least 10 or 12 dollars an hour.”

Fortified roof program leaving low-income people behind
Nonprofit leaders and advocates are concerned that changes to Louisiana’s fortified roofing program will leave the state’s poorest residents behind. The program’s rollout was originally designed to send funding to nonprofit organizations so that low-income residents could gain access to funding for new roofs. But outgoing Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon shelved that plan in favor of a faster rollout that utilized an online lottery system. The coveted grants have disproportionately gone to higher-income areas. The Time Picayune | Baton Rouge Advocate’s Sam Karlin reports

Julie Shiyou-Woodard, president and CEO of Smart Home America, a nonprofit that helped both Alabama and Louisiana set up their programs, said Alabama spent a long time building a network of nonprofits and other organizations to help low-to-moderate income families be able to afford to participate. “It was the plan for Louisiana to mirror that,” Shiyou-Woodard said, including a targeted outreach effort that never came to pass. “It was supposed to be a slow rollout. You work the bugs out. You make sure the platform can handle it so it doesn’t crash,” she said. “Nothing that was put in place…(to) allow for that money to reach families that needed it most, none of that happened the way it was supposed to happen.”

Number of the Day
$6 million – Amount of federal funding from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which is intended for low-income families, that Louisiana has diverted to controversial crisis pregnancy centers since 2019. (Source: Time Picayune | Baton Rouge Advocate)