Gulf oil spill delays legislative debate

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 10, 2010

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Even before an oil spill snaked its way toward Louisiana’s coast, state lawmakers were in a holding pattern for many of their biggest, most controversial debates. The oil spill just slowed action further.

As the regular session reaches its halfway point today, legislative leaders’ attentions are split between the Gulf of Mexico and the Louisiana Capitol, but they say they’ll be digging back into their legislative work.

The biggest items on the agenda: determining what cuts to levy on agencies in the state’s $24 billion budget next year and rebalancing the current year spending plan, which has a more than $319 million hole.

Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he plans to move the budget bills out of his committee by May 20 and bring them up for a House floor vote a week later.

Lawmakers are hoping to get an idea of whether Congress will approve new stimulus funding for states before they make decisions on the budget plans, Fannin said, but he also acknowledged the clock.

‘‘We’ve really got to start pulling this thing together,’’ he said.

Attempts to ban energy drinks for some teenagers, to cap the amount of scholarships in the state’s TOPS free college tuition program and to let gay parents adopt children together have failed. Lawmakers have ended their meddling in a dispute between NFL players and the New Orleans Saints. And a ban on red light cameras again has been stalled.

But many controversies remain on bills involving abortion, the federal health care overhaul, college restructuring, tuition increases, a smoking ban for bars and casinos, public records access and public school teacher evaluations.

The Legislature has chosen its auditor and confirmed the governor’s pick for interim lieutenant governor, but only six bills have reached Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk — and those were not controversial. Two have been signed, according to a Jindal spokesman. The measures deal with an arcane insurance issue and a land transfer.

Lawmakers have hundreds of bills awaiting final decisions, with only six weeks to go before the session ends June 21. Despite the crush, House Speaker Jim Tucker said he’s confident lawmakers can manage the workload.

Few bills are ever wrapped up at a regular session’s midpoint, and the budget is always the biggest bill looming by the halfway mark. This year’s budget problems are just tougher than in most years.

The multimillion dollar surpluses and bursting state coffers have dried up and been replaced with budget cuts, layoffs and reduced state services.

Jindal proposed a patchwork of funding and cuts to balance the $24 billion budget for 2010-11, but 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.

The budget debate for the fiscal year that begins July 1 goes hand-in-hand with plans for coping with this year’s $319 million deficit.

This year’s budget must be rebalanced before June 30. Jindal has proposed to close the deficit by cutting $65 million from state agencies and public colleges and tapping into a mix of one-time dollars. There are disputes about the types of money the governor wants to use.

Tucker, R-Terrytown, said while it appears the House budget committee has stalled in its work on the budget, the House’s financial staff is number-crunching behind the scenes to pull together a plan, in line with guidance from committee members.

‘‘I can assure you, a lot of work has been put into getting the budget situation straight,’’ Tucker said, without offering details.

While financial matters absorb much of the attention, that hasn’t slowed lawmakers’ ideas.

Bills awaiting final decisions would loosen restrictions on firearms, change ethics enforcement laws and open more records in the governor’s office to the public.

New abortion regulations in Louisiana are proposed, including measures that would require anyone seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound and that would ban health insurance coverage for all elective abortions. Another proposal would give the state health secretary broader discretion to deny or revoke the license of an abortion clinic. None has reached final passage.

One of the most heated disputes centers on proposals that attempt to nullify the federal health care overhaul. One such bill awaits debate on the House floor while another hasn’t even gotten a first hearing in a Senate committee.

Meanwhile, Jindal proposed sweeping education changes that would revamp the evaluation process for public school teachers, rating them in part on student test scores, and that would let Louisiana’s public schools act more like charter schools, allowing them to get waivers from state education regulations. Both bills face intense opposition from teacher unions.

Noting the state’s budget woes and the environmental threats from the Gulf oil spill, Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, asked lawmakers to consider setting aside bills that weren’t essential.

‘‘I think we need to take a long, hard look at our priorities this session … Unless you have a bill that you absolutely feel passionately has to move through this process, I’m going to ask you to take a look at it and see if it can maybe wait until another session,’’ Chaisson said.

The request raised complaints from senators and wasn’t expected to get a widespread jettisoning of proposals.

‘‘We need to go on about the people’s business,’’ said Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth.