Much to do in final 2 weeks of Louisiana Legislature

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget meet Friday, May 17.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget meet Friday, May 17.

Vouchers, Medicaid still unresolved

With most of this year’s regular session in the rear view mirror, a number of big issues still loom as legislators enter the final, two-week stretch.

The to-do list includes funding vouchers, debating a new school district in Baton Rouge, finalizing new gun laws and bridging differences over the $25 billion state budget proposal.

Although a Democrat-led push for Medicaid expansion has met its demise, leaders in the movement say they will try to keep the issue on the front-burner in the session’s waning days — continuing rallies and attempting to find legislation to amend to resurrect debate.

“It’s one of the most important issues any of us have ever faced,” said state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, who backed one of the defeated measures.

The session ends June 6, giving legislators less than two weeks to resolve the issues. Whispers of a special session can be heard from some corners of the chambers.

“A special session is a last resort, but I believe many in the House would opt for one, if necessary, to have a balanced, constitutional and reliable budget,” said state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles.

The state Senate plans to work Memorial Day to try to clear bills from its calendar. The Louisiana House returns to the State Capitol Tuesday.

The House advanced a budget package that relies on multiple pieces of legislation to balance the state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Still pending before the Senate Committee on Revenue and Fiscal Affairs is a package of bills the House advanced to raise money for the state budget and offer an alternative to the one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars the governor wants to use to pay for expenses that must be met year after year. The revenue generators include modifications to a motion picture tax credit and severance taxes, as well as an amnesty program for taxpayers who owe money to state government.

The Senate Finance Committee plans to move House Bill 1, the main budget legislation, on Wednesday, even though the revenue generators have not yet reached its committee room.

The finance committee’s chairman, state Sen. Jack Donahue, said he does not have a problem with the amnesty program, but doubts state government could survive the roughly $100 million in spending cuts added by the House.

“(The budget’s) like a big puzzle with moving pieces. You have to get all the pieces on the table before you can put the puzzle together,” said Donahue, R-Mandeville.

Once the budget leaves the Senate, the House can either agree or reject any changes made by the smaller chamber. Rejection would mean allowing a handful of legislators to resolve the differences behind closed doors. Another alternative would be a special session, an option rarely used.

State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said he expects the state Senate to appreciate the effort the House put into reshaping the governor’s proposed budget.

“I don’t get the sense that they’re looking to pick a fight,” he said.

As leader of a faction of House Republicans known as the fiscal hawks, Geymann also is keeping an eye on bills designed to change the state budget process. The changes include getting the budget from the Senate to the House sooner and avoiding a last minute scramble as the clock winds down on the session. Those bills still await debate in Senate committee.

“We are hopeful that the budget will remain inside the parameters it left the House (in),” Geymann said, defining those parameters as no one-time money on recurring expenses, passage of some budget reform measures to ensure a better process moving forward and a product that is constitutionally sound.

Key public school issues are awaiting action during the final two weeks of the session.

How Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to fund vouchers for the 2013-14 school year tops the list.

The state Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to use dollars from the same fund that finances public school students for others to attend private and parochial schools.

About 8,000 students are set to get vouchers in the upcoming school year. State Superintendent of Education John White said that will cost the state about $45 million.

In other areas, a bid to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge is headed for a showdown vote in the state House.

The two-bill package has already won Senate approval.

One is Senate Bill 199, which is awaiting a House vote.

The other is Senate Bill 73, which is a proposed constitutional amendment and is awaiting action on its wording in a House committee.

A hearing is set for Tuesday at 11 a.m.

Higher education leaders are still watching House Bill 671, which would allow schools to charge students a campus maintenance fee of up to $48 per semester. That could be worth millions of dollars. They are also looking at Senate Bill 16, a retirement plan that college leaders say is important for recruiting and retaining talented employees as it would keep employer contribution rates around 5.7 percent rather than at 1.8 percent.

Perhaps the most controversial bill in all of higher education this year, is Senate Bill 204. The measure would allow the state’s community and technical colleges to borrow, outside regular procedures, more than $250 million to pay for 28 construction projects around the state. Proponents say the bill is necessary to accommodate the state’s rapidly expanding two-year schools. Critics argue that the money to pay for those projects would come out of the state general fund at a cost of roughly $20 million a year for the next 20 years — essentially reducing the amount of money available to Louisiana’s four-year schools over the next two decades.

Several gun bills are nearing legislative passage.

A House-passed bill that opponents say unconstitutionally asserts that federal laws restricting or banning certain weapons stalled in the Senate.

House and Senate measures filed in response to the deadly Connecticut elementary school shooting are pending approval in the opposite chamber. The bills would require data involving those judicially deemed mentally ill be placed in a national databank used in screening of applicants for concealed weapons permits.

Another measure is one step away from final legislative passage that would criminalize the release and reporting of information involving concealed weapon permit holders.

Koran Addo, Will Sentell and Marsha Shuler of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.