Session begins today

Published 12:15 am Monday, March 29, 2010

BATON ROUGE (AP) — The mood is grim as lawmakers return to the Louisiana Capitol today, with multimillion dollar surpluses and bursting state coffers dried up and replaced with budget cuts, layoffs and debates over reduced state services.

State money woes overshadow other debates in the legislative session that opens at noon and runs until June 21.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed a mix of patchwork funding and cuts to balance next year’s budget, and fissures are again developing between the House and Senate about the depth of slashing needed to balance the budget and the possible use of trust funds to fill gaps.

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‘‘This year, unlike any other year, I can’t think of some issue that’s out there that has more attention than the budget,’’ said Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte.

And news keeps getting worse, with a deficit projected for the remaining three months of the current fiscal year that could reach as high as $400 million and deeper budget problems looming.

‘‘It’s frightening to us all,’’ said Rep. Jim Fannin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He warned attendees at a budget hearing, ‘‘We’re beyond doing more with less. We’re to the point of having to do less with less.’’

The financial difficulties come in the third year of Jindal’s term, a time that can create problems for governors with the Legislature because elections get nearer and political agendas become more tied to campaign strategy.

‘‘I think we’re going to see a different dynamic than we have seen in the past two years — because of the budget problems, because of members getting ready for re-election, because of the Washington divide, because of the governor’s ambitions, because of the ambitions of legislators to be heard louder,’’ said House Speaker Jim Tucker.

Jindal proposed a $24.2 billion budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year that cuts health care services and government jobs, spares college campuses and plugs in one-time funding to close a billion-dollar state revenue gap. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

However, the release of the governor’s spending plan came before the new deficit emerged for this year, complicating budget negotiations because the Jindal administration and lawmakers will have to grapple with this year’s shortfall before they can wrap up next year’s budget.

‘‘When you have to do cuts, and you have to do what we’re doing, everybody’s grim,’’ LaFleur said. ‘‘Nobody’s happy.’’

Jindal has ordered a hiring freeze and a spending freeze on nonessential services, and he’s prohibited pay raises for state government workers. He’s proposed consolidations of offices, elimination of programs and privatization of state services to save money.

Among the 1,900 bills proposed by lawmakers this year are a litany of financial measures designed to cope with the money problems. They would consolidate offices, tap into state trust funds and rework state government hiring, pay raises and retirement practices.

Jindal and higher education officials are proposing to offset some cuts already levied on public colleges — and possible looming reductions — with a bill that allows tuition hikes. The measure would remove legislative authority over college tuition and fee increases, letting the schools raise what they charge their students if colleges meet certain performance standards.

Lawmakers say it’ll be a struggle to get the proposal passed because they’re leery of raising student costs and about giving up their oversight.

Tucker, R-Terrytown, said a $15 price hike in the cost of a Louisiana driver’s license recently enacted by the Jindal administration also makes it more difficult for the tuition bill to pass. Lawmakers were inundated with complaints from constituents, and Tucker said that’s ‘‘poisoned the well’’ for fee increases.

Outside of financial matters, Jindal’s agenda is modest, with minor tweaks proposed to state ethics laws and recommendations to toughen laws against sex offenders and drunken drivers.

The budget troubles haven’t slowed lawmakers’ ideas.

Legislators have proposed prohibitions on the cameras that take pictures of motorists who run red lights, on the sale of highly caffeinated energy drinks to children under the age of 16 and on people 70 years old or older from running for elected office.

They’ll revisit failed issues from prior years, including a proposed ban on droopy pants that expose underwear, an extension of Louisiana’s smoking ban to bars that serve food and drug testing of welfare recipients.

Other bills would loosen restrictions on firearms to allow handguns at state parks, in churches and near school yards and to exempt weapons made and owned in-state from federal restrictions.

Battles will continue over ethics enforcement laws and the extent to which records in the governor’s office should be available to the public.

One of the most heated disputes is expected to center on a bill by Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, that attempts to nullify the federal health care overhaul, arguing the congressional legislation is unconstitutional.

Tea party groups in the state have made Crowe’s bill one of their top priorities for passage in the session, while the Legislature’s black caucus is vowing to fight it.

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