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Call Me an Optimist: Report on the Sessions of 2016

 
Call me an optimist

Winston Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Well, the historically long stretch of consecutive legislative sessions that ended last week has been ‘difficult’ — to put it mildly.

At the outset, we faced a mid-year shortfall of $954 million and a $2.1 billion deficit for 2017. It’s been widely reported how Jindal’s failed policies led us into dire straits and falsely reported the actual budget allocations for previous years, so I won’t rehash it here. In the end, we are left with a budget that still falls $337 million short of what was necessary in order to maintain services provided last year. The somehow still standing vocal minority that some refer to as the Jindal caucus refused to vote to fund these vital services and declined to close tax loopholes for the wealthy and big business. Unfortunately, these decisions will affect all Louisianians.

In this difficulty, though, I see opportunities. We have a new Governor. We have a chance to unite behind sound policies. We can create innovative systems to ensure Louisiana never ends up in this dreadful predicament again.

We didn’t win them all. And some legislators, blinded by ideology or driven by political motivation, failed us. But we seized some major opportunities - like the Revenue Stabilization Trust Fund and other legislation described below.

On a personal note, I can’t thank you enough for your support and guidance these past several months. There were times when I was frustrated and fed up - but knowing what I’m fighting for and that you’re there with me gave me the strength to persist.

And while we will surely continue to encounter difficulties, I’m going to continue seizing opportunities. Call me an optimist - you can count on it.

Best,
Walt 

Speaker Pro Tempore, Louisiana House of Representatives
State Representative, District 91, New Orleans

Revenue Stabilization Trust Fund

During years of high revenue collection, the State invests in education, healthcare, infrastructure and other priorities; but historically, lawmakers have ignored the inconsistency of these excess revenues, especially in volatile markets such as the oil and gas industry. So when there’s been a downturn in revenue, government has been forced to raise taxes or find some other saving grace. This boom and bust cycle has once again reared its ugly head as we have seen historically low mineral and corporate income revenues. It’s time we take this problem head on, and that’s why I sponsored legislation to create the Revenue Stabilization Trust Fund.  

This represents the most significant opportunity created during the sessions of 2016 for long-term fiscal reform that addresses the cycle of ups and downs our State has faced for generations. It will be up for a vote this fall, and I urge you to VOTE FOR OUR FUTURE

Riverfront Development

My legislation passed to give the Convention Center flexibility within its own district to boost commercial development along the New Orleans riverfront. The Convention Center plans to spend as much as $175 million of their bond capacity on infrastructure and improvements along Convention Center Boulevard with the hopes of attracting up to $1 billion in private investment for a mixed-use development that will include a 1,200-room hotel and entertainment district. This is primed to be one of the most transformative projects in decades and will reshape our riverfront into a true destination for visitors and residents alike, with the added bonus of diminishing the pressure imposed by masses of tourists on other major tourist destinations in our great City. 

 

Protecting the Coast

My legislation passed allowing the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to create large-scale restoration projects and provide corresponding credits available for purchase by Responsible Parties in minor oil spills as fulfillment of their obligation to restoration. The exciting part of this bill is that private investors can develop and fund wetland projectsthat are already part of the existing $90 billion Master Plan in coastal restoration. These private projects will have a direct and immediate impact on coastal restoration and protection at a quicker pace and a much lower cost than would be incurred by the government. 

 

Healthcare

Throughout this extraordinary year of budget negotiations, I made healthcare a top priority. I fought to fully fund Louisiana's safety-net hospitals, medical school system, and the University Medical Center, which are all critical for the health of our citizens and the health of our economy.  I'm proud to report that we finally expanded Medicaid in Louisiana. Healthy Louisiana goes into effect on July 1 and will extend healthcare coverage to almost 375,000 eligible Louisianans. I sponsored two bills that did not advance but that I will continue to champion: one to provide for Medicaid-managed long-term care and support systems, which would save valuable state funds, and another to require wellness exams for students entering kindergarten and sixth grade, which would help catch health problems early and improve overall well-being of school-age children.  If the child isn’t healthy, success in the classroom is that much more difficult.  

 

Internet Sales Tax

Before our government looks to collect revenue through new taxes, I thought it prudent to collect revenues already due to the State.  That is why I sponsored legislation to even the playing field between brick and mortar small businesses right here in Louisiana and their online competitors -- who often don’t remit and collect taxes that our small businesses must already collect.  This legislation will begin the process of ensuring that taxes currently due from online purchases are remitted to the state and local governments. It is estimated that between $80 and $400 million in lawfully due taxes are uncollected. These collections can have major impact on improvement to our local roads and infrastructure, as well as to the provision of vital services for the people of Louisiana.   

 

Criminal Justice Reform Task Force

For years, Louisiana has carried the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world, which unfortunately has not been met with corresponding low crime and recidivism rates. Something isn’t working and it isn’t good for the economy or for our communities. Last year, I passed a resolution establishing the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force in order to achieve the type of -- bipartisan, common sense, taxpayer-saving, public safety outcome-improving -- reforms that states like Texas, Georgia, Utah and others have produced over the past several years. The Task Force was extended this year and has the goal of producing evidence-based legislation for 2017 that will lower incarceration rates and increase public safety. As a former Assistant District Attorney who has seen the system from the inside, criminal justice reform was one of my original motivations for offering myself for public service.  Now, with this task force of highly qualified and experienced people, we have a chance to get on the right path.  With the support of Governor Edwards, conservative think tanks, progressive and conservative advocacy organizations, the faith-based community and democratic and republican lawmakers, the time is now to push for meaningful reforms.