Anyone expecting to see a harmonious session of the Louisiana Legislature when it opens deliberations Monday will be sorely disappointed. Some lawmakers always manage to introduce bills guaranteed to arouse emotions, and there is more serious business at hand.
The session’s work is complicated by a pending $1.6 billion budget shortfall. Large shortages have occurred in the past, but this one ranks among the highest ever.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has come up with solutions in his proposed $24.9 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. However, many are as controversial as those bad bills filed by legislators who must think they are judged by how many they file every year.
A Senate Retirement Committee hearing has already been scheduled this week to look into Jindal’s plans to sell the agency that operates the state employee health and life insurance program. The privatization of the Office of Group Benefits could produce $150 million in up-front money, which would eat up a nice chunk of the deficit.
Maybe so, but you can just imagine how disturbing this proposed change must be for the 250,000 employees and their dependents and retirees who are covered by the state-operated plan.
“All of this is being done behind closed doors, and it gives me great concern,” state Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, told The Advocate of Baton Rouge.
Gautreaux, chairman of the retirement committee, called Tuesday’s hearing.
Prison sale opposed
The public had an opportunity during the recently concluded special session on redistricting to comment on the governor’s budget. And Jindal’s plan to sell three prisons to raise funds for health care brought out a large protest.
You can understand the concern. Hundreds of jobs will be on the line if the sales take place. Some lawmakers are also convinced the private companies operating those prisons will increase their charges, so the state won’t actually save money over the long haul.
Paul Rainwater, Jindal’s commissioner of administration, said during a recent speech here that those one-time funds will give health care officials time to reform the way they operate and will help avert high budget shortfalls in the future.
The governor’s anti-tax stand is also controversial. And you can understand why some are upset. Jindal doesn’t mind increasing college tuition and student fees to help higher education avoid serious budget cuts.
Opponents of those increases call them taxes in disguise and added financial burdens for Louisiana parents and students.
Local school officials are complaining their state appropriations haven’t been increased for the third consecutive year.
Efforts will be made again to create only one board for higher education, a move that hasn’t had any success in the past.
The elimination of merit raises for civil service employees isn’t going over well either. Critics insist it is actually a pay cut and puts the monkey on the backs of the workers who keep the state operating.
Jindal also wants state employees to contribute more to their pension funds. Opponents say it’s just another unfair financial burden for workers.
The governor’s proposal to merge Southern University of New Orleans with the University of New Orleans makes sense, but it has widespread opposition in the affected area.
Legislation has been filed that would make it easier for some nonviolent offenders to win early releases. It is an effort by the Jindal administration to lower the state’s incarceration rate, highest in the nation.
Louisiana locks up 881 of every 100,000 of its adults. The national average is 502 per 100,000, according to the Pew Center on the States.
Similar efforts have been tried in the past, but they were unsuccessful. If the proper safeguards are in place, this would be one way to put these people back into the job market and save the millions they are costing the state each year.
1,900 to lose jobs
The governor’s proposed budget would reduce the state workforce by 4,000 full-time positions. And 1,900 of those would be layoffs. Surprisingly, we haven’t heard many complaints about that plan, but you know the affected workers aren’t happy.
Agencies experiencing cutbacks include the state’s charity hospitals, the social services department, juvenile justice programs and recreation and tourism departments. Legislators can be counted on to try and protect some of those agencies.
Jindal’s use of too much one-time money has also sparked efforts to make that more difficult in the future.
Can you believe that some lawmakers have actually filed bills granting tax breaks in the face of that $1.6 billion shortfall?
As you can see, there is more than enough to keep legislators humming. Nevertheless, those pesky, perennial bills too numerous to mention will be back again. It was obviously a mistake to open fiscal sessions up to legislation of a general nature.
We will do our best over the next two months to keep you up to date on developments at the state Capitol. However, at this point, it looks like an awfully daunting task.
Jim Beam , the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].