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PSN on July 21, 2008 - 5:36pm
has had three sessions this year, with two specials before the regular
session that ended last month. The state moved on a series of
significant measures to mixed results, but in the end controversy over
a legislative pay raise and the governor’s unanticipated line item
vetoes of over 200 legislative spending items dominated the news.
Coming into the session the spotlight was focused on new Governor Bobby
Jindal who, at age 36, is the youngest current governor in the United
States. He also became the first non-white to serve as governor of
Louisiana since Reconstruction, and the first elected Indian American
governor in U.S. history. Dubbed a "conservative reformer," he
achieved enough in his first session to earn Newt Gingrich's regard as "America's most transformational governor."
Ethics Reform: Upon being elected, the governor quickly
called the legislature into special session to pass an ethics package.
He put forth several dozen changes to the current law, the majority of
which were designed to increase the state’s ranking on independent
watchdogs’ comparisons of disclosure and ethics laws (by the Better Government Association and the Center for Public Integrity).
While much of the package passed,
lawmakers were especially resistant to strong financial disclosure
requirements. They ended up growing the list of officials covered
under the requirement significantly, even adding volunteer members of
small state agencies to the rigorous disclosure requirements. The law
was amended to relax these requirements, but not before droves of
people who sat on commissions resigned. Lawmakers also vociferously
opposed a move to ban all gifts, and even a $50 limit on meals
purchased by lobbyists drew scorn, though it eventually passed and
certainly hasn't kept the legislators from eating well.
The major setbacks of the session came in a bill to strip the state
ethics board of the power to adjudicate cases, giving that power to
administrative law judges. This bill also became the target of a
successful amendment, decried by advocates,
which raised the standard of proof for being found guilty of ethics
charges. The newly diminished role for the constitutionally mandated
Ethics Board caused almost all of the board members and key staff to resign. Some former board members have spoken out against the changes as well.
Budget: Louisiana was in the enviable position of figuring
out what to do with a $1 billion surplus largely created by surging
revenue from extraction royalties as the price of oil skyrockets. The
state constitution prevents budget surpluses from being returned to
taxpayers as rebates and also places limits where they can be spent.
The mammouth surplus didn’t keep the House from attempting to make
huge cuts in education and healthcare, but the majority of those monies
were replaced by the Senate.
Tax Cuts: In enacting SB 87, the legislature directed roughly 75 percent of the tax cut to the wealthiest fifth of Louisianans,
while taxpayers in the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution
would see virtually no change in their taxes. Corporate taxes for a
host of industries were also trimmed by $50 million.
Infrastructure: $530 million of the surplus went to
transportation and infrastructure improvement across the state, while
$300 million to hurricane protection and coastal restoration, $75
million to deferred maintenance for higher education.
Education: Teacher pay was increased by an average of
$1,000 per teacher to keep it at the southern average. Teacher aids
will also receive a $1,000 bonus this year. $90 million was
appropriated for incentive pay for teacher accreditation and innovative
- The state will phase in Universal Pre-Kindergarten over the next couple years (SB 286 sponsored by Sen. Ann Duplessis), however, the future of the program is dependent on future funding increases.
- On the negative side, the legislature passed a tax deduction for
private school tuition, and a voucher program in New Orleans to attend
private schools (HB 1347).
- Higher Ed tuition at public universities will be allowed to
increase 3 to 5 percent a year over the next four years. State funding
was held steady, and the state still has comparatively low tuition
- The state enacted
a dangerous, first-in-the-nation “academic freedom”? law to allow
local school boards to introduce extra materials critical of scientific
topics like global warming and evolution. Critics include major
scientific organizations who say it is an attempt to bring religion to
the classroom and will likely inspire a lawsuit. The law is the only
success this session for creationists in the state legislatures, but presents a significant win for the creationist Discovery Institute that has specifically pushed for local school boards to have control over the content of scientific education.
Legislative Salaries: The state's lawmakers have not seen
a pay raise since 1980, and they passed a bill to double their current
compensation to $37,500, saying that normal working people couldn't
afford to be legislators given the low pay and job demands. Regardless
of the merits, the backlash among Louisianans was severe and now 70
percent of voters say they will vote against their legislators. The
governor initially promised not to veto a pay raise in exchange for
good will toward his legislative agenda. However, after he and four legislators became the targets of recall petitions, he backtracked and vetoed the raise.
Workforce Training: The Department of Labor was
reorganized and reconstituted as the Louisiana Workforce Commission
with a mission to identify job training needs and make use of the
community college system to provide that training (SB 612 sponsored by Senate President Joel Chaisson).
Louisiana has an estimated 100,000 jobs open due to a lack of trained
workers. Only eight percent of the workforce has at least two years of
post-high school training or education. The meeting of this crucial
need is a priority for both business and labor and the legislation
passed each house unanimously.
The Health Care Consumers Right to Know Act
directs the Dept. of Health to develop and publicize metrics of "cost,
quality and performance data" for all health care providers and
insurance plans in the state.
- The SCHIP program was expanded by $10 million, and the state has
set a goal to add 28,000 children to the system in the coming year.
Under HB 958,
health insurance providers must now cover treatment of autism spectrum
disorder in children under 17. The legislation passed both chambers
unanimously. Health plans will cover $36,000 of treatment per year,
with a responsibility to pay a total of $144,000, which is equal to
four years of treatment. Autism Speaks notes that this is the eighth state to mandate autism treatment coverage, and Pennsylvania recently enacted the most robust law in the nation.
Hurricane Recovery: In a messy last minute compromise,
lawmakers enacted changes to the Road Home program that compensates
homeowners for damage from Hurricane Katrina (SB 755 sponsored by Senators Herbert and Murray).
Program recipients will now be able to appeal their grants to an
arbitrator hired by the state. Several members had hoped to allow
appeals in court or at the least some judicial review, but opposition
killed those measures. The law also allows grants to be based upon the
highest pre-storm property appraisals.
Video Franchising: Louisiana legislators, under pressure from major service providers, enacted SB 807,
a statewide video franchising bill. Telecommunication service
providers argue that these franchises, which create a single statewide
simplified process of offering cable services, could
have benefits for the public, such as slightly increasing competition.
The Louisiana legislation, however, failed to include certain consumer
protections and community benefits, such as support for Public
Educational and Government (PEG) stations, protection of municipal
control and the assurance of required build-out to underserved and
un-served areas, and is therefore not in the public interest. Among
the worst provisions:
- Build-out requirements are completely prohibited: A key component
of why service providers favor statewide franchises is they provide
them the ability to selectively deploy new network technology. Under
Senate Bill 807, there is no community-wide build out obligation.
- Reduction of municipal control and ability to negotiate for community benefits.
- No substantial PEG protections.
Youth Voting: Under HB 990,
the state now allows the designation of secondary school guidance
counselor offices as state voter registration agencies, enlisting
counselors in registering new voters pursuant to designation by the
Secretary of State.
In this eventful session, the state made some progress on a few
positive issues like pre-K and youth voting, but the session was mostly
marked by tax cuts tilted towards the wealthy and other bad bills.