Let the lawmaking begin

03 12, 2012 by The Advocate

Legislative leaders say that public schools and state employee pensions likely will fill much of the time Louisiana legislators expend during the annual session that begins noon Monday.

“The session is about education, education, education and retirement, retirement, retirement,” said House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

Legislators are expected to begin considering 1,589 bills currently scheduled for committees on Tuesday. Lawmakers are required to meet 60 days during an 85-day period. The session must adjourn no later than 6 p.m. June 4.

During the 2011 elections, Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., spent millions on electing legislators who would support what they called their conservative agenda.

The 2012 Louisiana House of Representatives has 58 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two with no party affiliation, of which 31 are new. The state Senate has 15 Democrats and the rest are Republicans with 10 starting off as senators for the first time.

White men dominate both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature in numbers far exceeding their populations within the state. The U.S. Census Bureau says 51 percent of the state’s 4.57 million are women and 32 percent are black.

Twelve of the state representatives in 2012 — about 11 percent of 105-member House — are women and 23 are black — 22 percent of the membership. Four state senators are women — or about 10 percent of the 39-seat upper chamber. The nine black members comprise 23 percent of the body’s membership.

“Louisiana has always been a conservative state,” said state Sen. Sharon Broome, the Baton Rouge Democrat who is second in command of the state Senate. “The incoming class is more conservative than before. … The governor is certainly poised to have a successful outcome for his legislative agenda.”

The key measure for any annual legislative session is House Bill 1, which details and authorizes how state government will spend its money for the 12 months starting with the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

Jindal has proposed a $25.5 billion state operating budget that would move towards privatization of services traditionally handled by state government, close prisons, eliminate more than 6,000 positions and cut rates for health-care providers who treat the poor.

Increased costs, plus a drop of revenues from taxes, fees, royalties, federal grants and other sources mean state leaders will have about $895 million less next year to provide same level of services as now.

Other proposed laws legislators say could attract attention are efforts to focus lawsuits by landowners whose property has been spoiled by past drilling activity on cleanup, rather than monetary damages; and efforts to further restrict abortion in Louisiana.

But the proposed revamps of the state’s retirement systems and of the public education system are the hot topics that are generating the most interest from constituents, many lawmakers agreed.

“It would be a close tie,” said state Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, about education and retirement issues getting the most interest from the public. “Everything else is a distant third.”

Both chairmen of the House and Senate Retirement committees say they are receiving a lot more attention than past panels, usually sleepy during previous sessions.

“Finally, I get to discuss some of the issues that have been ignored, literally, for decades,” said Slidell Republican state Rep. Kevin Pearson, who chairs the House committee that will hear pension legislation.

“I’ve even had visits to my house about that,” said state Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas and chair of the Senate panel. “I’m getting lots of calls about those (bills) — raising the retirement age to 67 and increasing the employee contributions.”

When he unveiled the package, Jindal said changes are needed because the debt of the state’s retirement systems, which taxpayers must cover, is so massive that it affects spending for education, health care and other state services.

Generally, the Jindal-backed legislation would raise the retirement age to 67 for many employees, require final benefit computation to be based on the final five years (instead of 3) of average compensation; and increase employee contribution rates by nearly 40 percent — from 8 percent of their paychecks to 11 percent.

Jindal’s legislative retirement package would cover state employees, with the exception of those in hazardous duty jobs. The proposals also include about 8,500 workers on college campuses and in higher education administration, but not public school teachers.

“It will be the most hotly debated topic in the session because it personally affects so many people,” said state Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette.

Jindal’s public school agenda is the other key issue. One of the state’s larger teacher unions is calling for its members to visit the State Capitol when House and Senate education committees take up the legislation on Wednesday and Thursday.

The governor has proposed a major expansion of who qualifies for state aid to attend private or parochial schools.

It would apply to low-income students — about $50,000 for a family of four — who attend schools rated “C,” “D” or “F” by the state. Jindal said the change would allow students a way out of low-performing schools.

Opponents, who call the aid vouchers, say the new option would damage traditional public schools already suffering from three years of state aid freezes.

A second bill is aimed at revamping teacher tenure, which is a form of job protection; and give local school districts new flexibility in how teachers are paid. Under current rules, most teachers get tenure after three years in the classroom. In a third area, Jindal wants to revamp Louisiana’s classrooms for pre-kindergarten students, including letter grades to show parents which schools do the best jobs of preparing children for kindergarten.

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, said that while he can understand the desires of many parents, he is concerned how the governor’s plan might draw money away from areas with high performing school systems, like Livingston and Ascension parishes.

“I will protect what we’ve had in Livingston Parish,” Pope said.

State Sen. Fred Mills Jr., R-Parks, said the run-up to the 2012 regular session has been as busy as he as ever seen. “I’ve been getting 20-30 calls a day,” Mills said.

State Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, agreed. “Oh, my God. It’s been an uproar. It’s been a very concerned group of constituents, not only on the education side, but on the health-care side.”

State Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, said he and others in the Acadiana delegation are hearing from constituents about their concerns for health-care services regarding ongoing budget cuts to the University Medical Center in Lafayette. The UMC suffered a $4.2 million budget cut in December and more could be on the way.

State Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, said the education issue is not as pressing because many of the families in his district already send their children to private schools. He is focusing on legislation that would increase health insurance coverage for children with autism and expand a scholarship program for children with special needs.

State Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, said he wants to focus on infrastructure needs. As the federal stimulus and hurricane recovery monies pay out, the state will have to shift to taking out bonds, a form of loans, to pay for highway improvements.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, is one of the legislators reacting to the high rate of violent crime in Baton Rouge, and will sponsor bills that would allow neighborhoods to create special districts that could raise money for additional policing. His House Bill 309 would create a crime prevention district for Park Forest. House Bill 480, by state Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, would do the same for Glen Oaks.

All and all, however, Barrow said the makeup of the 2012 Louisiana Legislature should translate into a successful session for Jindal and his allies. “They’ll have the votes unless something comes up and stirs the hornet’s nest,” Barrow said.