Legislature session ends

06 05, 2012 by The Advocate

Louisiana legislators ended their annual meeting about 45 minutes early Monday night with many calling the session the most contentious ever, while the governor and legislative leaders called it the most productive ever.

“I know this was a tough session with hard feelings and intense feelings on both sides,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said at news conference Monday. “It’s good that people were passionate. These were important issues.”

Jindal counted 49 different pieces of legislation that passed as part of his package.

Winning final legislative approval were a total 521 House bills and 372 Senate measures, according to the Louisiana News Bureau.

“It was kind of a whirlwind. We have been on a fast track ever since we got down here,” Senate President Pro-tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, said Monday.

“This session was more charged with emotion and spitfire than any one I can recall,” said state Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, whose father and brother were senators before him.

In the closing days of the session, which began March 12, legislators challenged, briefly, Jindal’s use of “one time” money in the state’s $25.6 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and for using some of the $3.4 billion basic funding for public schools, called Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, to help pay private tuition and fees for some students.

The governor got a little — but not everything — he wanted in changing the retirement system for state employees.

But Jindal began the session with a sweeping revamp of public school education in Louisiana. The main bills, now signed into laws, include expanding access to vouchers, making it harder for teachers to earn and retain the job protection called tenure, trimming the authority of local school boards and expanding groups that can authorize charter schools.

“The current system is flawed,” said state Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge. “We had an opportunity to change things and recreate the system, and we did.”

“Despite the controversies that developed in the closing days, this year’s legislative session will prove to be one of the more memorable in recent history,” said Barry Erwin, president of Council for A Better Louisiana.

Officials of Louisiana’s two largest teacher unions, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators, said they already were reviewing the bills over how public tax school dollars would be used to help some students to attend private and parochial schools.

“It’s probably the toughest session I’ve ever seen,” said Louis Reine, president of AFL-CIO Louisiana. “I’ve never seen so many instruments that attacked working men and women.”

The Legislature advanced a $25.6 billion state operating budget to Jindal after disputes about the amount of one-time, or nonrecurring, money in it.

Jindal, with a few exceptions, essentially got the spending plan he wanted for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The bill would be balanced with state and federal revenue as well as with expected property sales, legal settlements and dollars from funds scattered across state government. Higher education would sustain reductions. Money for health care would swell.

“The budget issues are the most disappointing,” said state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge. “We continue as a state to not live within our means. We’ve tapped one-third of our savings account, which is the rainy day fund. We overspent, so we had to use our savings. This coming year, the budget contains almost $300 million in one-time money and that’s troubling.”

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said the “cash balance plan” would help us “begin to nudge at solving the problem” ensuring retirements promised state employees.

Legislators approved a bill that would change the basic retirement plan for new hires from guaranteed lifetime benefits to a 401(k)-type plan called “cash balance.” Other changes to retirement sought by Jindal died. They would have made state employees contribute more to the retirement and work longer for reduced benefits.

“Our biggest win was with the pension reforms. They only got one passed. We held steadfast for our state workers,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, also described the session as the most contentious. “There were people lining up on different sides of an issue. You could not please everyone. It was not apple pie and the American flag,” he said.