Budget bill hot topic in Louisiana Legislature

Updated at 1:15 p.m.  — Behind the scenes action in the Louisiana House of Representatives Monday is centering on whether to concur with the state Senate’s changes to House Bill 1, the $25 billion state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

State Rep. Joel Robideaux, a House leader involved in the talks, said Monday that stubbornness in the state Senate could trigger a special session on the $25 billion state spending plan.

Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said the Senate usually does not want to make compromises on House Bill 1, the state operating budget.

“We’re all going to have to decide how willing we are to make concessions versus how willing we are to come back for a session to get it done. That’s the two choices,” Robideaux said after the House broke for lunch.

Budget negotiations have dominated the meetings Monday, but other major legislation is expected to get some attention as well as both chambers work through the final four days of the 2013 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature.

For instance, Senate Bill 73, the Senate-passed constitutional proposal that would allow a statewide vote to set up new school district in southeast Baton Rouge. SB73 needs two-thirds of the House – 70 votes – in order to call a statewide election, in which a majority of the voters in the state and in East Baton Rouge Parish must approve.

The legislation, Senate Bill 73, was skipped shortly after the House went into session at 9 a.m.

Sponsors typically take such action when they are trying to round up votes or, in this case, want to make sure a large number of House members are hand for the vote.

Meanwhile, many in the House are unhappy with the Senate’s handiwork on House Bill 1, the main budget legislation for the fiscal year that starts in July.

The Senate stuffed in one-time dollars, reduced spending cuts and increased money for a voucher program that sends public schoolchildren to private or parochial schools.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, chatted with legislators on the House floor Monday morning before mounting the steps to his perch at the top of the House chamber to direct the proceedings, joking that he had to get to what he is paid to do. Kleckley said he is cautiously optimistic that a special session can be avoided to work out differences on the state budget.

“I’m listening to the members to see what they’re interested in,” he said.

The House and the Senate are at odds on one-time dollars, public school funding and other issues in the state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

A lot of pieces could come together Monday afternoon.

The Legislative Fiscal Office is expected to make a decision on the amount of one-time dollars that would be used. That decision impacts whether the House needs 70 votes – versus 53 – on the budget.

Four days remain in the 2013 Regular Legislative Session. The session ends at 6 p.m. Thursday.

“Thursday can be a lot of fun around here ... We may have to be suspending rules left and right,” said state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles.

The Legislature last held a special session on the budget in 2000, when the clock ran out without agreement on a state spending plan.

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe and head of the Legislative Black Caucus, said she expects House members to wait until Tuesday to make a decision on the state budget.

However, Jackson cautioned, anything can happen in the legislative process.

The House’s options include accepting the Senate’s changes or rejecting them and allowing three House members and three Senate members to try to work out a compromise. Yet another option would be to shelve the bill, tossing it into limbo with four days remaining in the legislative session.

Also scheduled for debate Monday is Senate Bill 130, which would make sweeping changes in early childhood education, including licensing by the state of programs for children from birth to age that receive public funding.

Also on the agenda is Senate-passed legislation that would set up a task force commissioned to come up with recommendations that would tie a school’s performance within its peer group, such as graduation and retention rates, to the amount of money it receives from the state.

Senate Bill 117 had been scheduled for a vote on Sunday night, but the House sponsor, state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, asked to postpone the controversial “outcomes” measure, after debate over the supplemental budget for the current fiscal year took so long on Sunday night.