BEAM: Legislators Stepped Up To The Plate In This Year’s Session

State legislators have every reason to be proud of the independence they demonstrated at their just-ended session. We haven’t seen anything like it from that branch of government in modern times. However, they now face an even tougher job. Lawmakers have to convince the folks back home that their lives will be better because of the actions they took.

It’s only natural for most citizens to ask, “What’s in it for me?” And if they don’t like the answers, legislators won’t be able to say, “The governor made me do it.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal played a role, but he wasn’t as dominating as he has been in the past. The governor came out early with a tax reform plan designed to eliminate state income taxes and replace them with higher sales taxes. He ran into trouble when it was obvious the increased tax burden would have been borne mostly by businesses. And we all know how that works. Those tax burdens, for the most part, are passed along to consumers.

Jindal “parked” his plan and pretty much stayed behind the scenes for the rest of the session. And we can thank Rep. Joel Robideaux, RLafayette, for saving us from a dozen income tax repeal bills that could have still been considered.

Robideaux is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that deals with tax issues. At his request, sponsors of those bills sidetracked them for the session. Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, a member of that committee, correctly predicted the bills wouldn’t resurface.

Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, became a leader in an extremely effective House coalition of Republican conservatives called “fiscal hawks,” Democrats and members of the Legislative Black Caucus. It was the right combination to eventually get budget reforms enacted and a legislatively produced budget approved. There was only one dissenting vote among the 144 members of the House and Senate.

Robideaux, once again, worked behind the scenes to help that coalition achieve its goals. He later received the “Gentleman of the House” award, which is annually given to a legislator who is “reliably effective in his or her legislative efforts while also consistently maintaining qualities of civility, humility and decorum.”

Everyone involved in shaping the state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 admits it isn’t perfect. And they agreed that is probably a sign it’s a workable product.

So, what’s in the budget for the citizens of this state?

Both houses backed a decision to use $113 million from a state surplus to fill a gap in the state’s Medicaid program. That is the federal-state health care program for the poor and uninsured. The funds ideally should have gone into the state’s rainy day fund, but it became a situation of which had the highest priority.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, perhaps the most important player in the budget negotiations, said there really wasn’t another choice.

“If you don’t address it (the Medicaid shortage), I don’t know how you make that adjustment with two weeks to go in the fiscal year,” Alario told The Associated Press. “We all said we wanted that money to go into the rainy day fund. It rained. It’s storming.”

Public school supporters aren’t happy about state vouchers that help students in failing schools receive tuition to attend private and parochial schools. However, 8,000 of those students will be able to use them next fall. It is one issue on which Jindal refused to give ground, and that resulted in a $45 million appropriation to pay those vouchers.

Democrats managed to get $69 million for a teacher pay increase that will give them a minimum of about $575 more a year. They could get more. It isn’t much, but it’s an increase they haven’t had in some time. And there are pledges that school funding will increase in the coming years because of the work of the budget coalition.

If the budget reform bills that pass prove to be as effective as hoped, higher education and health care programs won’t face more crippling mid-year budget cuts.

Jindal’s privatization of the state’s charity hospital system is still a work in progress, but the indecision is causing considerable heartburn for those who get health care through that system.

Kleckley echoed the sentiments of many others when he says he wanted to give more money to higher education institutions.

Organizations and officials speaking for poor and low-income citizens criticized the failure of the Legislature to back bills forcing the state to join the Medicaid program under Obamacare. They said 400,000 adults would benefit. Jindal refuses to join the program that he calls costly and ineffective, and governors have the last word on this issue.

Was the session perfect? Not by a longshot. However, the independence shown by the Legislature overshadows the shortcomings. Lawmakers think the trend will continue in future sessions, and that should help improve the results.

As an observer of the Louisiana political scene for over a half-century, I found the session to be a breath of fresh air that was sorely needed in Baton Rouge. And the fact that local legislators — Kleckley and Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff — played critical leadership roles in the independence movement made the outcome even sweeter.

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