As you read this, the Louisiana Legislature is in session. It began on Monday, April 10, and runs through Thursday, June 8. During that time span, there is much to be done. There are the state’s budget problems to be dealt with as well as tax reform – and a gasoline tax. But Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is giving the Legislature other thorny issues to deal with. The governor is proposing equal pay for equal work, a modest increase in the minimum wage, extending the Children’s Cabinet, and tackling the opioid epidemic.
Gov. Edwards announced his Equal Pay for Equal Work initiative as part of his legislative agenda on Equal Pay Day, a national day highlighting the gap in earned wages between working women and men. Louisiana has the highest gender wage gap in the country, with the average Louisiana woman making only $0.66 for every $1 a man makes. Meaningful and enforceable equal pay legislation has been a priority of Gov. Edwards since he entered the state Legislature. This portion of his legislative agenda attests to his commitment.
State Rep. Helena Moreno, a New Orleans Democrat, has offered legislation which would promote pay transparency by prohibiting employers from taking actions against employees for inquiring about, discussing or disclosing their wages or those of other employees. “Establishing an equal pay law is the first of many steps we must take to end pay discrimination,” Moreno said. “Learning how to successfully negotiate is critical, whether it’s for that next job or a current job. One way to help women and men know whether they are being compensated equally is pay transparency,” she added.
State Rep. J.P. Morrell, also a Democrat from New Orleans, is another proponent of equal pay for women and will spearhead the effort in the Senate. “Our state leads the nation in single-family households living in poverty – single mothers working two to three jobs to make ends meet. Establishing pay parity means these brave women can make a living wage while caring for their families,” Morrell said.
When it comes to the minimum wage, Louisiana is one of only five states that have not adapted a state minimum wage. In Louisiana, 40 percent of working families do not earn enough to cover basic monthly expenses. So Gov. Edwards is proposing an increase in the minimum wage – albeit a modest one, increasing it from the federally mandated $7.50 an hour to $8.50 an hour over a two-year period. That’s about the best the governor can hope for from a Republican-controlled Legislature, which hasn’t taken kindly to raising the minimum wage in the past. Going to $10 or $15 an hour as some other states have done would be completely out of the question.
Ava Dejoie, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, points out that there hasn’t been an increase to the minimum wage since 2009 but that the cost of goods has increased by 35 percent, which impacts families, communities and employers. “It’s essential we work together to raise the minimum wage to strengthen families, grow our economy, and build a stronger work force,” Dejoie said.
The Children’s Cabinet is responsible for coordinating funding and programs at the state and local levels that serve Louisiana children and their families. It consists of the cabinet secretary of each state department whose members are focused on improving publicprivate partnerships to eliminate child hunger. The Cabinet is also coordinating the successful implementation of the governor’s “raise the age” policy as nearly 300 youths become newly eligible for probation and parole.
State Sen. Regina Barrow, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, has introduced the legislation that would extend the sunset of the Children’s Cabinet to Aug. 15, 2022, and expand the duties of the Children’s Cabinet Advisory Board to focus on child poverty prevention initiatives. “Child hunger is an issue facing thousands across our state every day. I am especially proud to partner with Gov. Edwards in this effort,” Barrow said.
Opioid abuse is a national epidemic.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 91 Americans die every day from opioid overdose. Louisiana is one of 20 states with a significant increase in opioid deaths. CDC data from 2014-2015 show that Louisiana had a 12.4 percent increase in deaths resulting from opioid overdose. Also, Louisiana is one of 13 states that have more painkiller prescriptions than it has people. From 2012 data, 118 prescriptions were prescribed per 100 people.
Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to deal with the problem. The House bill, which is bi-partisan, would limit first-time prescriptions of opioids for acute pain to a seven-day supply and all opioid prescriptions to children to seven days. The Senate bill seeks to strengthen the Prescription Monitoring Program by requiring that prescribers check the system upon initial prescription of a Schedule II drug, including opioids, with exceptions for cancer and hospice patients.
Both of the opioid bills have the governor’s support as well as bipartisan support and should be considered favorably by the Legislature. The equal pay and the minimum wage bills are a different story, and there is no guarantee that either will pass and be signed into law. Nevertheless, something to keep an eye on.
Lou Gehrig Burnett, an award-winning journalist, has been involved with politics for 44 years and was a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., for 27 years. He also served as executive assistant to former Shreveport Mayor “Bo” Williams. Burnett is the publisher of the weekly “FaxNet Update” and can be reached at 861-0552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.