Weary lawmakers return for Louisiana regular session

Published 12:21 am Monday, April 25, 2011

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Weary lawmakers still smarting from angry battles over the drawing of their political districts return to the Louisiana Capitol today to take up the difficult task of balancing next year’s budget in an election year and in a Legislature growing more partisan.

The two-month regular session will be packed with tough decisions on whether to sell state prisons, merge colleges, raise college tuition and how to cut state spending to close a $1.6 billion budget gap.

If those decisions weren’t tricky enough, lawmakers will consider controversial bills to ban abortion, place the Ten Commandments on capitol grounds, toughen immigration laws and require presidential candidates to prove their U.S. citizenship before their names can be included on a state ballot.

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Also up for debate are perennial bills to ban smoking in casinos and bars, restrict cell phone use in cars, open more governor’s office records to public scrutiny and allow concealed handguns on college campuses.

The session starts at noon. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks to lawmakers an hour later. The whole thing must wrap up by June 23.

Political watchers and lawmakers predict the session could be an unpredictable one. It will be the Legislature’s first regular session since Reconstruction where Republicans hold the majority in both chambers. Dozens of lawmakers face re-election bids in the fall and a tense redistricting special session wrapped up fewer than two weeks earlier, leaving relationships bruised.

“I think it’s going to be rough on all of us because we’re backed up against re-election. It’s a fiscal session with no money. That’s never fun. Plus, we’ve only been gone for a week. It’s overwhelming,” said Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie.

Lawmakers have filed more than 840 bills for consideration, but that’s down from the last time they met in a “fiscal session” two years ago. The biggest task facing lawmakers is the balancing of the 2011-12 budget for the year that begins July 1, while addressing a $1.6 billion shortfall.

Jindal proposed a nearly $25 billion budget that would cut funds for charity hospital care, education programs for at-risk youth, parks and museums and state employees. To make the numbers work, Jindal’s spending plan anticipates millions of dollars that still need separate legislative approval and, in one case, backing from voters in a statewide referendum this fall.

Critics have called the financing plans shaky, questioned the level of one-time funding that would pay for ongoing expenses and worried that the state’s free college scholarship, called TOPS, won’t get enough money.

“Between great camouflage, imaginary money and creative bookkeeping — i.e. prison sales and tuition increases that haven’t happened — it’s certainly hard for citizens to get a good gauge of what services we’re going to be asking them to do without,” said Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, vice chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The governor has described his budget as creative and responsible.

Spending would be cut by $1.1 billion, but much of the reduction is tied to the loss of federal dollars. State general fund spending would increase by $529 million, nearly 7 percent.

The head of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jim Fannin, said committee members both Republican and Democrat have concerns about the governor’s budget recommendations, particularly proposed prison sales and college tuition increases. But Fannin said he wasn’t sure the opposition would stick because removing those types of financing would deepen cuts.

“At the end of the day, when they have to make a decision about cutting health and hospitals, they may change their mind,” said Fannin, D-Jonesboro.

Higher education proposals may be among the most divisive, with Jindal backing efforts to consolidate the historically black Southern University at New Orleans with the largely white University of New Orleans, merge the governing boards of four-year universities into one management board, boost tuition and fee costs for students and loosen state job protection and purchasing rules for some schools.

Many of the proposals would require two-thirds support from lawmakers to pass, and some legislators are questioning whether any bills can reach that high benchmark with relationships frayed and tensions high.

One thing on which lawmakers of all political stripes seem to agree is that there’s little chance of passage for tax increases, even “sin tax” hikes on cigarettes, gambling and alcohol that have passed in other states.

“With it being an election year, I think folks are looking to scrub the budget, and let’s get down to some base level budget and make do,” said Rep. Joel Robideaux, I-Lafayette, the number two ranking member of the House.

While they’ll be choosing among cuts, the Legislature also will be weighing whether to drain more money from the state’s coffers. An array of tax breaks are proposed for property owners, businesses, breastfeeding mothers, parish councils on aging, historic renovations and school supply purchases.



Louisiana Legislature: www.legis.state.la.us