The Louisiana Senate on Sunday approved a $3.4 billion spending plan for public school students, setting up a showdown vote in the House on Monday, the last day of the session.
The state Senate voted 24-15 for what backers called a compromise version of the school aid proposal, which sends dollars through a formula called the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP.
The latest version stripped off two key amendments added by the House on Friday.
It was endorsed by five of six legislative negotiators, including leaders of the Senate and House, and then the full Senate on Sunday evening.
The lone holdout was House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, of Amite, who helped ignite the controversy on Friday.
Edwards sponsored an amendment on Friday that would remove a provision from the proposed formula backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. He made clear that he plans to renew those arguments in the session’s final hours on Monday.
As Edwards declined to sign the compromise — it is called a conference committee report in legislative parlance, he added a note recommending that his amendment be retained.
The session ends on Monday at 6 p.m.
Penny Dastugue, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, said Sunday that if lawmakers fail to approve the spending package educators will ask Jindal to call a special session to tackle the issue.
“We are hoping that cooler heads will prevail at the end,” Dastugue said.
The proposal, Senate Concurrent Resolution 99, authorizes the spending of $3.4 billion for roughly 700,000 public school students for the 2012-13 school year.
The issue rarely causes deep divisions in the Legislature.
But this time, especially in the House, the issue has gotten entangled with Jindal’s public school overhaul, budget spats and other volatile issues.
House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge and House handler of the resolution, said Sunday he wants to avoid a special session.
“I feel comfortable with it,” Carter said of the latest resolution, which is the version backed by BESE and Jindal, and which the Senate passed earlier this year.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie and Senate sponsor of the plan, said Sunday he is optimistic that the school aid will win final legislative approval.
But he added, “It should be close.”
The issue turned tumultuous on Friday when the Louisiana House, in a highly unusual move, voted to strip one of Jindal’s school priorities from the legislation, and to return it BESE for more work.
Lawmakers, education officials and others have said for years that the state Constitution says clearly that lawmakers can only accept or reject the public school funding plan, but not change it.
Yet the House, with a coalition of Democrats and Republican “fiscal hawks,” did just that and ignored its own leadership.
The lower chamber voted 62-38 to strip a Jindal-backed section that would allow the use of some state school aid dollars to help early high school graduates by offering “scholarships” for assistance with college tuition and fee costs.
A few hours later the state Senate rejected the House stance and asked for negotiations.
During a brief debate on Sunday, state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, said Louisiana’s public school spending plan should not include dollars to help defray college costs.
“There is nothing wrong with Rep. Edwards’ amendment,” Peterson said.
Appel countered that the addition changes the proposed formula, which he said is not allowed.
Others said it makes sense to reward early high school graduates with a portion of what they would have gotten in state school aid to attend college.
“It is one of the few things that targets our high achieving students,” Dastugue said in a telephone interview.
But Edwards, who earlier opposed Jindal’s key public school overhaul bills, accused BESE of overstepping its authority by including such a policy provision in the MFP on early high school graduates.
Other critics see rejecting the MFP as a last-ditch bid to undercut Louisiana’s expanded state aid for some students to attend private and parochial schools, which was the subject of a bitter debate earlier this year.
Voting FOR stripping out House amendments to return to the original, $3.4 billion public school spending plan (24): President Alario and state Sens. Adley and state Sens. Allain, Amedee, Appel, Buffington, Chabert, Claitor, Cortez, Crowe, Donahue, Guillory, Heitmeier, LaFleur, Long, Martiny, Nevers, Peacock, Riser, Tarver, Thompson, Walsworth, Ward and White.
Voting AGAINST SCR99 conference report (15): State Sens. Broome, Brown, Dorsey-Colomb, Erdey, Gallot, Johns, Kostelka, Mills, Morrell, Morrish, Murray, Perry, Peterson, G. Smith and J. Smith.
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