Were It Not For The Budget, We’d Say This Was A Good Legislative Session

Problem is, the budget is the elephant in the room – and they didn’t balance it.

Because neither Gov. Bobby Jindal nor the leadership in the House or the Senate endeavored to tackle the difficult structural problems in Louisiana’s budget by making the hard decisions to reduce the governmental instrastructure, there will be a mid-year cut – and it’s going to hurt.

And we’ve harped on that fact repeatedly over the last three weeks.

Now that the session is over, though, it’s time to take a step back and view this year’s session for what it was – a high-profile, largely successful legislative endeavor in which real issues of importance were brought forth – and sometimes even passed.

Among the items which succeeded were…

A bill to handle bullying in schools. This is the new social-policy fad, and it’s an issue best handled through quality administration in schools – if teachers and principals are doing a good job they can spot and address bullying without turning it into a criminal case. But as laws on bullying go, Louisiana’s new SB 764 is a good one. It focuses on training school personnel to spot problems, gives parents a chance to pull kids being bullied out of a public school where the problem is occurring and imposes a duty for school personnel to report and respond to bullying problems. What it doesn’t do, though, is make criminals out of kids who do the kinds of things kids do – and that was what the original anti-bullying bill Rep. Pat Smith authored would have done.

Increasing 2nd Amendment protection. Sen. Neil Riser’s SB 303, a constitutional amendment which would impose a “strict scrutiny” standard on any limitation on the right to bear arms within the state’s court system, will go before the voters this fall. Riser’s bill was discussed by its author here at the Hayride two weeks ago.

Business tax relief. A raft of bills which would increase the state’s economic competitiveness passed to Jindal’s desk amid concerns that the state is “giving away” too much revenue. The bills will give the Stephen Moret, Louisiana’s economic development head, limited ability to offer rebates for payroll and relocation costs as long as the joint House and Senate budget committees approve. Among the breaks are a 25 percent five-year rebate on relocation costs for companies moving their corporate headquarters to Louisiana and a payroll tax cut of between 6 percent and 15 percent for the creation of jobs paying high wages and carrying health insurance with them.

It’s well worth a separate post at some point to delve into the issue of whether Louisiana should be offering such lavish packages as an incentive to lure “free agent’ companies to the state, given that some of those free agents might well be competing with existing Louisiana businesses at a state-provided advantage. That said, Louisiana has already made a strategic decision to get into the incentive game – so giving Moret the tools to chase down economic wins will at least promise that the state will be good at this kind of big-game hunting.

A cash-balance retirement plan for new state hires. The majority of Jindal’s pension reform package failed, and that stands along with the budget as a significant black eye for him in this session. The retirement age for state workers needs to be pushed back to an actual retirement age if those pensions are supposed to be sustainable, and that didn’t pass. Neither did an attempt to make state employees contribute more to their pensions, which is necessary if Louisiana is going to eat into the $18.5 billion in unfunded pension liabilities the state faces over the next 20 years. Jindal’s bill to restrict cost-of-living adjustments for retirees didn’t go anywhere either, and neither did another bill which would calculate pension payments based on an employee’s top five years of salary instead of the top three years it’s currently calculated from. Those bills will all need to be brought back up in slightly different forms in the future, because at some point they’ve got to pass or else the current unsustainable course of the budget will be Romper Room compared to what’s coming.

But Jindal did get one pension reform passed, and it’s a big deal. What did make it to his desk is a bill, HB 61, which creates a cash-balance retirement program not dissimilar to a 401(k) plan for new state hires. And its passage will mean that while the legislature wasn’t able to fix the problem for future years it at least will insure it doesn’t get worse. Jindal’s camp called that bill a “game-changer,” and while it’s a lonely success in an otherwise shattered legislative package, they’re not wrong in terming it so.

An abortion ban. Outside of cases where the mother’s life is in danger, it’s going to be illegal to have an abortion 20 weeks after fertilization in Louisiana. And the performance of abortions is now going to be burdened with a requirement that the provider give the prospective abortive mother the sonogram from her womb 24 hours in advance of the procedure – and a chance to hear the fetal heartbeat as well. It’s a good bet that in passing the new abortion restrictions the state is picking a court fight, and they’ll undoubtedly get one. Everybody loves a good abortion dustup, though…right?

A potential fix for the Legacy Lawsuit mess. Jindal announced a compromise in mid-May between landowners and the oil and gas industry over how to clean up environmental damage caused by obsolete oil drilling practices, which an LSU study this spring indicated was putting some 30,000 potential oil and gas jobs in the state on ice. That’s obviously a big win for the state with the plethora of oil and gas finds popping up virtually everywhere.

But the big losers in the fight to pass HB 618 were the trial lawyers, who had been trying to scuttle a deal from the start. So much so that Donald Carmouche, the plaintiff attorney in a large number of the legacy lawsuits in question, attempted to bring HB 618 author Neil Abramson up on ethics charges for having wrote his bill. Abramson, a New Orleans Democrat who doubles as a bigwig at the prominent Big Easy law firm Liskow  & Lewis, responded with an equally obnoxious action – a bill to penalize actions like Carmouche’s where leges are concerned.

In any event, the impediments to future oil and gas development in the state appear to be resolved and one of the most urgent issues in front of the legislature was addressed successfully.

Term limits for school boards. Across the state voters will have a chance to set term limits this fall for local school board members. That’s a big win for the state, as many school boards are populated with petty tyrants and political lifers who have trashed education delivery for decades – and rooting them out of office on the money available to a challenger in a school board race has proven nearly impossible. Usually, change involves waiting for those petty tyrants to run for parish council or the legislature – but many among said petty tyrants are perfectly happy to remain where they are and dispense patronage and ride herd over the schools in perpetuity. Breaking up the situation by imposing term limits is a good idea. Doing it by putting the question to the voters is a great idea, albeit one the constitution requires. We’ll know in six months which of the state’s jurisdictions are wedded to their petty tyrants on the school board and which ones are willing to have healthy turnover.

More teeth for the Ethics Board. The Board will now have a right to appeal when it loses a case against a public official it accuses of violating the state ethics code, and that’s important stuff – too often the Ethics Board is reduced to sniping from the edges without really being able to prosecute violators.

And of course the big movement was in education.

Jindal passed a sweeping reform package which revamps the teacher tenure rules to make it a lot more difficult for lousy teachers to avail themselves of tenure. He managed to take New Orleans’ voucher program statewide, though the educational establishment is having a field day about some of the schools which have signed up for it. There’s another bill making it easier to get a charter school started, even if the local school board is doing everything it can to kill it. And there’s a bill which provides tax rebates to companies or other rich people to give out scholarship money to private schools – which could, for example, facilitate an ExxonMobil helping to open a school for its employees.

Jindal also managed to survive a late run made on his plan by the educational establishment when the state’s Minimum Foundation Program was approved on a close vote. This year’s MFP allows for Louisiana kids who graduate high school early to get some tuition support as college freshmen and it also funds the voucher program; if the MFP had not passed, the program would have reverted to last year’s formula and both of those initiatives would have been shelved (which would likely have meant Jindal would have called a special session and engaged in more vigorous arm-twisting to get it passed).

Those are significant issues being addressed and by and large the actions being taken moved the state forward.

Now, about that budget…



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