Session ends; Budget OK'd

With a wave of his hand Thursday, state Rep. Jim Fannin skipped closing remarks and put the $25.4 billion state spending plan to a vote in the Louisiana House.

Fannin, D-Jonesboro, did not need to make the case for legislators to embrace the budget legislation.

The plan shot to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk on a 104-0 vote. Moments earlier, on the other side of Memorial Hall, the state Senate voted 38-1 in favor of the proposal.

For many legislators, it was a moment to celebrate. A bipartisan marriage of House Republicans and Democrats resulted in a state operating budget that offers public schools the first significant state funding increase in several years.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, told his chamber that certified teachers can expect a roughly $575 pay bump from the $69 million in additional money for schools.

The House and the Senate spent the final days of the legislative session haggling over House Bill 1, the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. The talks faltered at times, and a special session seemed a distinct possibility.

Instead, legislators brokered a compromise and went into their final day with time to pose for photographs with the governor and playfully fire rubber bands at each other before cleaning out their desks and going home until next year. They finished with time to spare, adjourning an hour before the official 6 p.m. end of the 2013 regular legislative session.

“We’re not completely happy. The Senate’s not completely happy ... But I bet the people of Louisiana are happy,” House Speaker Chuck Kleckley said.

The governor threw his support behind the compromise budget and visited both chambers during the final moments of the session.

The 2013 session was supposed to revolve around Jindal’s plans for eliminating the state’s income taxes. Instead, he acknowledged resistance to the idea and abandoned his proposal on the first day of session. He asked legislators to send him their own plan. They rejected his request and focused on rewriting his state budget proposal.

The governor said he batted back an expansion in the Medicaid program and proposed tax increases.

“We’re going to continue to swing for the fences. We’re not going to bat a thousand,” Jindal said Thursday as the Senate chamber emptied around him.

Over the session’s two-month span, legislators passed numerous bills, including bans on tweeting while driving and on doctors overseeing abortions via the Internet. They created a legal framework for surrogacy births in Louisiana and wrote new law to address the Assumption Parish sinkhole.

By far, though, the state budget dominated.

Jindal proposed a budget earlier this year that relied on property sales, legal settlements and other one-time dollars to fund higher education.

Many in the House objected to using one-time money for expenses that must be met year after year. Republicans and Democrats joined ranks and purged the nonrecurring funds. They replaced the dollars with spending cuts, tax break modifications and a tax amnesty program designed to encourage thousands of taxpayers to settle their tax disputes with the state.

The Senate started a fight with the House by rewriting the plan once again. One-time dollars crept back in. Spending cuts were softened. Public schools did not get a funding increase, but a voucher program that sends public schoolchildren to private or parochial schools grew.

In a move that angered a faction of House Republicans known as the fiscal hawks, the Senate gutted a package of budget process bills that reflected months of work on the hawks’ part.

Negotiations between the two chambers consumed the final week of the legislative session.

The governor announced the compromise late Wednesday, before caucus leaders had a chance to take it to their members. Despite the premature announcement, the agreement stuck.

Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, opened and ended the final day of the legislative session Thursday on a symbolic note. A photo of rubber ducks in rows flashed on the House board as he proclaimed the chamber had its ducks in a row.

“Cooperation, hard work, listening and fighting for what is right led us to good results,” Kleckley said.

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, leader of the Legislative Black Caucus, said she felt a bipartisan spirit for the first time in her two-year tenure as a legislator.

“I stand with you as proud as I’ve ever been to be a House member,” said Jackson, D-Monroe.

House Republican Lance Harris, also relatively new to the chamber, said he learned the difference between the words “physical” and “fiscal” as well as what can be accomplished with determination.

“We all got together and said we must do something ... We said we must and finally we said we will make changes,” said Harris, of Alexandria.

The fiscal hawks accepted $80 million in one-time, or nonrecurring, money for expenses that must be met year after year. In exchange, the hawks won passage of a package of bills that will make it harder to use those dollars in the future.

“We got a lot of victories, most importantly budget reform,” said state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles and the hawks’ leader.

House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite, said he still is unhappy that state funding for higher education is not more than it is. However, Edwards said legislators scraped together some additional dollars for public colleges and universities.

Edwards lauded the extra $69 million for public schools, noting that half will go toward pay raises.

“Communication developed trust and confidence and a working relationship,” he said.

Kleckley gave legislators time to applaud the collaboration before taking the final vote on HB1. When the bill came up for a vote, the House board lit up with green lights signaling unanimous approval.

Fannin could not resist offering a post-passage comment.

“I’ve never had one that had all green lights. I want to tell you (that) you’re to be commended,” he said.