Senate spends Memorial Day working on budgets

Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, left, speaks Monday with Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, at the State Capitol. The Senate worked on Memorial Day to advance bills as the 2014 legislative session draws to a close. Show caption
Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, left, speaks Monday with Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, at the State Capitol. The Senate worked on Memorial Day to advance bills as the 2014 legislative session draws to a close.

The state Senate worked Memorial Day, taking advantage of the holiday to advance bills as the end approaches for the 2014 legislative session.

The full Senate tackled noncontroversial bills and finished its work within an hour. American flags dotted each senator’s desk in the Senate chamber.

Debate was livelier in the Senate Finance Committee, where Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson confessed that she doesn’t know what her own salary is and where legislators got a little terse with the Jindal administration.

Legislators have until 6 p.m. June 2 to finish their work.

Lingering issues include the governor’s push to intervene in a levee board’s lawsuit against the oil and gas industry for damage to the state’s coast as well as the controversial Common Core education standards.

This weekend, the focus was on the state’s finances.

The Senate Finance Committee reported to the State Capitol Sunday and Monday to work on state budget bills. Time is evaporating to finish a $25 billion state operating budget that will fund schools, hospitals, prisons and other public expenses in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

On Monday, the committee looked at lingering needs in the current state budget year as well as next year’s budgets for the Legislature and the courts. First up was the judiciary budget in House Bill 1095.

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Marcus R. Clark said the judiciary needs more money to avoid cutting vital programs, such as drug courts.

“We’ve always taken what you’ve given us and been really frugal with it,” he said.

When it reached the Senate side of the State Capitol, HB1095 directed the judicial system to find a way to reduce state funding by $11.1 million. Senate Finance lowering the reduction to $6.2 million. The reduction wasn’t big enough to hit the judiciary’s funding goal, falling short by several million dollars.

“What a wonderful job you do for the state of Louisiana. But you know there are very difficult budget times,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville.

Another committee member, state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said the Senate might have to talk things over with the House in order to resolve the judiciary’s funding problem. Clark outlined a need for dollars to pay benefits costs and other expenses.

State Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, took a different approach, asking Johnson what the average salary for a justice is. Legislators approved a pay raise last year for Supreme Court justices.

Johnson said she is so unconcerned about things like pay that she didn’t know the answer to Tarver’s question. After conferring with another justice, she arrived at the figure of $167,000, adding that she gets a bump as chief justice. Then she told Tarver that lots of department heads in New Orleans and state government make more than $200,000.

The committee advanced HB1095 as well as a $73 million budget for the Louisiana House, the Senate and other entities. That legislation is House Bill 1194.

House Bill 1094 — which takes care of supplemental needs in the current budget year — consumed the committee’s attention, especially after the Jindal administration walked legislators through 11 pages of amendments. A sticking point was an $18 million shortfall in the state prison budget.

Donahue complained that the Jindal administration that left it for the Senate to fix the problem with very few days left in the session.

“You put this committee in a difficult position,” Donahue said. “You must have known the budget wasn’t going the way it should.”

The committee advanced the bill to the Senate floor for further debate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.