Session enters home stretch

For labor leader Steve Monaghan, the 2014 General Session of the Louisiana Legislature could be summed up in a day of raw milk and raw anger.

As the session, which began March 10 and ends June 2, enters the home stretch, Monaghan recalled stepping into the normally staid House Agriculture Committee, which was considering allowing the sale of raw milk in Louisiana, to see scientists and farmers with clenched fists. Then he walked next door into a donnybrook over whether to allow the Louisiana Workforce Commission to continue operations, a routine and usually perfunctory decision.

From Common Core to Real ID to oilfield lawsuits, everyday citizens have shown up to make their voices heard on government programs, loudly sometimes, occasionally angry, but certainly in numbers not seen at the State Capitol in a long time. Legislators, who usually prize decorum, also are more frequently acting in the heat of the moment.

“I’m seeing it as so much noise and so little clarity,” Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said of the session. “More citizens are involved, but what is it that everyone is talking at once about?”

Many are calling 2014 the session of “no.”

For instance, multiple measures aimed at reining in the runaway costs of the politically popular TOPS scholarship program encountered such emotional turbulence that Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, publicly threw in the towel.

Four attempts to establish a higher state minimum wage failed, as did several bills to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination and efforts to restrict short-term payday loans.

But the Legislature hasn’t resolved many other issues.

Intense efforts to derail Common Core, the educational standards public school students would have to meet, were defeated, leaving only a bill that would delay implementation for a year.

About 100,000 retirees could receive their first cost-of-living adjustment in years. Gov. Bobby Jindal has signed the bills allowing for the bumps on monthly checks, but the legislation authorizing the raises still awaits final votes.

House Bill 388, which opponents claim will end up shutting down all abortion clinics in south Louisiana, is one step away from Jindal’s desk. All that’s left is expected state House approval of a Senate change.

Legislators filed 1,968 bills, according to the Louisiana News Bureau. Jindal has signed 20 bills into law as of Friday night.

Despite the acrimony, Jindal says the legislators have “done well.”

The legislation Jindal says he cares most about has worked through the process and is poised to pass before the session ends in two weeks.

The Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy, or WISE fund, would provide $40 million to higher education institutions that train for high-demand jobs. House Bill 1033 has passed the House and is set for a Monday hearing in the Senate Finance Committee. A similar measure, Senate Bill 526, awaits a vote by the full Senate.

Legislation that would toughen penalties for human trafficking and provide some funding for the victims is nearing completion, Jindal said.

“Overall, I think the session has gone well, and I think the Legislature has worked well with us,” Jindal said.

One of the biggest issues remaining are the bills that opponents say would make the oil and gas industry immune from lawsuits by people and groups who seek recompense for the environmental damage caused by exploration, drilling and production activities over the years. Supporters, which include Jindal, say the measures would stem frivolous litigation against an industry that provides thousands of jobs.

Among the controversial measures is Senate Bill 469, which would undermine lawsuits the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed last year against 97 oil and gas companies claiming environmental damage to the marshes. SB469, which passed the Senate on a vote of 24-13, awaits a hearing before a House committee.

Senate Bill 667, which passed the House on Thursday, goes back to the Senate. The House stripped a Senate-passed amendment, so now the new rules would apply to more 300 “legacy lawsuits” already filed by landowners.

Stephen Waguespack, who heads the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said SB667 is a codification of the opinions from previous court cases, implied obligations of the Mineral Code and the current law.

“If you didn’t make it retroactive, in large part, you’d be watering down current law,” Waguespack said, adding he is unsure how the measure will be received in the Senate.

Legislators also must finalize a $25 billion state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts this summer. The budget funds education, prisons, roads, health care and other public expenses.

The House received House Bill 1 and quickly found problems with it. Not enough money was set aside for public schools, college scholarships, elections and housing for inmates. The House fixed those problems and others by ordering the Jindal administration to make cuts, trim contracts and reduce overtime.

Now it’s the state Senate’s turn to take a crack at the budget. The bill must make it through committee, undergo floor debate and make it back to the House in the short timeframe.

Many legislators voice concern about the budget’s reliance on nearly $1 billion in one-time, or nonrecurring, revenue for expenses that must be met year after year. The reliance will get the state through the upcoming budget year but could create problems the following year when bills need to be paid.

On the education front, bills covering three broad areas are pending in the final two weeks of the session.

A $3.6 billion funding plan for public schools — Senate Concurrent Resolution 55 — has won approval in the Senate Education Committee and is awaiting a vote in the Senate Finance Committee.

While Common Core caused much vitriolic testimony — one mother said she would hold Education Superintendent John White responsible if her daughter was murdered — the four bills failed to set aside the academic standards. A measure that would delay the impact of the Common Core standards for an additional year — 2015-16 — cleared the House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate Education Committee. It is House Bill 953.

A bid to overhaul the East Baton Rouge Parish school system by giving principals sweeping new authority also was the subject of long, often angry, testimony that went on well into the night. Senate Bill 636, which already has been approved by the Senate, also is awaiting a vote in the state House.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, said he has grown weary of legislators from across the state being dragged into solving the problems of East Baton Rouge Parish.

“The Baton Rouge delegation can’t agree among themselves,” Edwards said. “They shouldn’t be coming to Legislature with this until they can agree.”

Though plans are not set, the full-time staffers are being told to prepare to work Memorial Day weekend, then pretty much nonstop from May 26 until “sine die” at 6 p.m. June 2.

LFT President Monaghan said he feels legislators, lobbyists, staffers, even the everyday citizens who showed up a lot, are feeling the fatigue. He wonders whether the reaction will be one last burst of effort or just accept something, call it a victory and go home.

“The scars of the battle over the bills they spent so much time on and got blocked, will that contribute to the chaos of the last minutes?” Monaghan asked. “I guess we’ll see over the next couple weeks.”