Legislators continue to finalize state spending plan

Updated at 1:45 p.m.  — The Louisiana House broke for lunch Thursday as legislators continue to finalize the $25 billion state spending plan.

Earlier in the day, the House rejected the state Senate’s changes to a tax amnesty proposal that is part of the compromise on House Bill 1, the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said some tweaks need to be made to a proposed program that would generate money for state government by offering taxpayers incentives for settling tax disputes.

The final day of the 2013 regular legislative session started with a photo of rubber ducks popping up on the House board.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said legislators finally have their ducks in a row.

The state spending plan presented a challenge and sparked talk of a special session. The House and the Senate disagreed on public school funding and other issues.

However, a compromise emerged Wednesday night that would give public schools their first significant state funding increase in several years. Gov. Bobby Jindal gave the agreement his backing.

With the budget being worked out behind closed doors, legislators focused on other bills Thursday during public proceedings.

The budget compromise calls for public schools to get their first significant state funding increase in several years. Another piece limits the amount of one-time dollars that can be used for expenses that must be met year after year.

“I’m happier than I was,” state Rep. Ted James said.

James, D-Baton Rouge, said his only fear is that mid-year budget cuts will materialize.

The deal includes a $69 million increase for local school districts sought by House Democrats that Jindal said he will seek to make a recurring funding boost, rather than a $50 million one-time teacher pay bonus that had been proposed by the Senate.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said all certified teachers would get pay raises under the budget compromise.

“It’s a 100 percent better than it was last year,” he said of the proposed spending plan.

The tradeoff, Monaghan said, is accepting an expansion in a voucher program that sends public schoolchildren to private or parochial schools.

The House agreed to a compromise on House Bill 629, which would create a debt recovery unit within the state Department of Revenue.

HB629 aims to put more teeth behind collecting money owed to state government. New bills that are not paid within 60 days would be subject to a 25 percent collection fee.

The state Senate tackled the legislation later in the day, voting 37-1 in favor of it and sending it to the governor for his signature.

Earlier, in the day a bill involving the sweet potato industry led to lighthearted protests against vote buying on the Senate floor.

The Senate approved House Bill 664, which would require sweet potato growers and farmers to get permits.

State Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, teased state Sen. Francis Thompson, who handled the bill, that he did not get any sweet potatoes this year. Legislators routinely get gifts of Louisiana products during the session.

“I always come prepared,” Thompson told Cortez.

Thompson, D-Delhi, reached into his pocket and pulled out a coupon for free sweet potatoes.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, punched his button.

“Can he buy votes like that?” Murray joked.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, assured the Senate that Thompson is far too cheap to ever violate a ceiling on gifts that legislators can receive.

While the legislators work out the final bits of the state budget, the House and Senate will look at resolutions to urge state government to continue operation of the Edgard/Reserve and White Castle ferries; prohibit smoking outdoors within 25 feet of some state buildings,

Also on the agenda is Senate Bill 218, which would prohibit the state Department of Transportation and Development from collecting fines from persons not paying tolls on the bridge over the Mississippi River in New Orleans.

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