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Julie Schwartz on September 17, 2009 - 1:11pm
LA Legislative Session Roundup
The 2009 regular legislative session focused primarily on fiscal issues, with legislators only being allowed to introduce up to five non-fiscal bills. While action was taken on the open government, ethics, education, and health care, fronts, to a large extent, meaningful reform was delayed or unraveled on each issue and any positive action was minor.
Budget and Tax: After a contentious "fiscal" session that was defined by sharp disagreements over how to cope with an approximate $1.3 billion shortfall in revenue, the Louisiana Legislature passed an approximately $28 billion budget that included more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money and tapped into a variety of cash reserve funds, including the rainy day fund, an insurance incentive fund, the Mega-Project Development Fund and a potential windfall from a tax amnesty program, to minimize cuts to higher education and health care. Even with the additional funding, spending was reduced well below existing levels. The Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) announced in August that hospitals and physicians serving Medicaid patients would bear the brunt of its $240 million budget cut through reduced reimbursement rates. Despite the fact that state revenues have plummeted, the Legislature did not raise any taxes.
Stimulus: Although Gov. Jindal voiced his firm opposition to the Obama Administration's stimulus package, he begrudgingly accepted most of the money. Jindal, however, has resisted accepting Medicaid and unemployment insurance funds. State Democratic lawmakers attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to override Gov. Jindal's decision to reject $98 million of stimulus funds for unemployment benefits. Democrats hoped to use the stimulus funds to expand the number of people eligible for benefits and modernize state unemployment insurance policy. However, Gov. Jindal and most state Republican lawmakers argued that eligibility for these stimulus funds required a change in state policy that would lead to higher unemployment taxes for businesses after the stimulus funds expire.
Transparency: A session-long battle over the openness of the governor’s office records ended with legislative passage of a bill that critics contend falls far short of the transparency in government that Gov. Jindal promised. SB 278 will replace the governor's blanket exemption to the open records law with a more qualified exception. Supporters say it would open more records to public scrutiny. Critics say the bill doesn't go far enough and could be used to restrict access in government departments that aren't currently shielded. The watch dog organization Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana said in an opinion, "[t]wo bills introduced this session, which would have opened most of the governor’s records to the public, are all but dead due to strong opposition from the administration. Instead, the administration supports SB 278, which purports to move Louisiana forward in executive branch transparency but would actually deliver a devastating blow to open government." SB 195 requires the disclosure of campaign contributions by persons hired by statewide elected officials to serve as agency heads and by persons appointed to certain state boards and commissions.
Ethics: In 2008, the Legislature limited the value of food and drink that could be given by certain sources to $50 per public servant, per event. An exception to the $50 cap was created for gatherings “held in conjunction with” certain broadly-defined meetings. This year the Legislature passed HB 591 which removes the $50 cap for any "activity, occasion, reception, meal or meeting" held during the "same time period" and in the "same general locale" as those meetings. This bill expands opportunities for special interests to wine and dine public servants. The League of Women Voters for Louisiana President Narcisse said that "no good purpose is served by allowing unlimited expenditures for legislators, state officials and employees" by lobbyists at conferences.
Mortgages: In compliance with the federal Secure and Fair Enforcement for Mortgage Licensing Act of 2008 (SAFE Act), which calls for states to establish a plan for the licensing and supervision of individuals engaging in the business of mortgage loan origination, Louisiana state lawmakers passed HB 810-- or, the Louisiana Secure and Fair Enforcement of Mortgage Licensing Act of 2009. The law requires mortgage loan originator to, among other things, register with the Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System and Registry, complete pre-licensing and continuing education, submit to fingerprinting for the purpose of a criminal history background check, and meet surety bond coverage requirements.
Education: Gov. Jindal signed two bills, HB 612 and SB 259, that aim to reduce Louisiana's school dropout rate by lowering educational standards and creating a new "career track" high school diploma for students who do not intend to go to college, which would include more vocational and technical courses. Opponents of the bills object to a provision in the legislation that lowers the academic requirements to enter ninth grade for students who choose the career diploma. Under the new law, such students could still pass the eighth-grade LEAP test even if they fail either the English or math portions. Currently, students must score at least "basic" in one of the subjects, and "approaching basic" in the other to get promoted. Rep. Jim Fannin, sponsor of the House measure, said he thinks students drop out because they can't pass the LEAP test. "These students get so old that they don't fit in with that younger group," he said. The Council for a Better Louisiana, an issues-oriented government watchdog organization, said in a letter to Gov. Jindal asking him to veto the bills that "[l]owering standards will not speed our educational progress. Instead, we fear it will tempt students and parents to take the easy way out when we should be challenging our kids to learn more." Some of the other education bills approved in 2009 include:
- HB 179 requires the state superintendent to establish, with BESE approval, multiple ways for students to progress to 5th and 9th grades. According to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, AFT, the legislation served to continue to spotlight how standardized testing now drives curriculum and diverts over $150 million to testing corporations.
- SB 316 provides for a comprehensive approach to improve graduation rates and ensure college and career readiness for high school students.
- HB 519 removes the state’s cap on charter schools.
- SB 285 provides for a comprehensive system of articulation and transfer of credit between and among public secondary and post-secondary educational institutions.
- HB 794 establishes the Post-Secondary Education Review Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of post-secondary education in Louisiana. The commission is charged with reviewing all aspects of post-secondary education in order to ensure that the enterprise is operating efficiently, effectively, and in a manner that best serves students, their families, and the state.
Health Care: The 2009 Regular Legislative Session was reactive in its approach to health care issues, with the conspicuous absence of a comprehensive strategy.
- HB 772 provides scholarships to increase the primary care and nursing workforce in under-served areas of Louisiana.
- HB 406 seeks to adopt the federal requirements relative to genetic testing by prohibiting health insurers from requiring or using genetic testing and genetic information in certain circumstances.
- HB 517, the "Conscience in Healthcare" bill, allows public health care employees to refuse to provide a handful of services, including abortion, embryonic stem cell research, embryo cloning, euthanasia, and physician assisted suicide, if they object to the procedures out of "sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction." Marjorie Esman of the ACLU of Louisiana said the bill could lead to all kinds of discrimination and racism under the guise of moral objections. “At best, this bill would lead to all kinds of unintended consequences,” Esman said.
- SB 246 establishes the "Electronic Health Records Loan Program" ("Program"). The Program gives the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals authority to apply for and administer competitively awarded federal stimulus money in the form of loans to health care providers for the purchase and implementation of electronic health record systems.
- SB 282 requires health insurance carriers to post information on their website regarding contracted anesthesiologists, pathologists, radiologists, emergency medicine physicians, and neonatologists. The information must list each contracted facility, which providers services that facility, and whether the providers are contracted with the insurance carrier.
- HB 347 provides that personal health information in the possession of the Department of Insurance is to be held confidential. The bill was amended during the session to allow access upon request to the Office of Inspector General and the Legislative Auditor.
Energy: The Louisiana Legislature passed a handful of bills to benefit energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
- HB 858 expands the eligibility for wind and solar energy system tax credit to taxpayers who purchase and install such systems in residential properties.
- Based on a successful model in Berkeley, California, SB 224 allows for the creation of sustainable energy financing districts by local governmental subdivisions and provides for issuance of bonds and property assessment programs for solar and energy efficiency projects.
- HB 733 authorizes a tax credit for green jobs and industries, including renewable energy services, green building and construction, weatherization, energy rating, biofuels, energy-efficient transportation, and deconstruction and green product manufacturers. Working on a tiered system that offers 10 percent to 25 percent, based on how much companies spends, the tax credit applies to the start-up costs of a new green business as well as to the payroll of each new green job, said Seung Hong, chief of staff for New Orleans City Councilwoman Shelley Midura, who promoted the bill. There is a one million dollar cap per state-certified green project. Hong also pointed out that Louisiana and New Orleans officials historically have pursued low-paying and low-mobility jobs and too often have been late to the game in pursuing new industries, such as recent efforts to attract a biotech sector -- an industry already well-advanced in other parts of the country and requiring a highly skilled labor pool. "Green jobs," by contrast, "are white collar and blue collar jobs," Hong said, based in areas ranging from research science to solar panel installation, and they tend to pay well.
- HCR 93 establishes the Louisiana Climate Change Policy Commission to make recommendations on which to base the development of a comprehensive policy for the state on climate change, particularly addressing the areas of carbon sequestration; greenhouse gas reduction; diversification and improvement of energy systems; planning for design, land use, and economic development relative to climate change mitigation and environmental improvement; and coordination of state and federal policies. The Commission will report its findings to the Governor and Legislature prior to the 2010 Regular Session.
- HR 104 requests the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment to study the development of a green energy policy for the state. The resolution states that "it is vital to the economy to identify, develop, demonstrate, and validate" sustainable and affordable new energy sources.
Labor: HB 705, which failed to pass the House, would have made it unlawful for most employers to engage in gender discrimination in regards to employee wages. It also required employers to keep records of employee wages and provided a path for remedy including additional damages and attorneys' fees. Gov. Jindal vetoed HB 658, which would have allowed employees to wait up to three years to file a disability claim for workers compensation benefits. Supporters of the proposal said it would help workers with injuries that may be work-related but may not be diagnosed quickly. Critics said the change could increase fraudulent claims and lawsuits and could lead to higher worker's compensation rates for businesses.
- HB 781, which was vetoed by Gov. Jindal, would have created a program for homeless assistance and prevention, the position of a director for homeless assistance and prevention, and the Louisiana inter-agency council for the homeless. In his veto message the governor stated that while he supports the goal of the legislation, he was concerned with the five year fiscal note and would prefer the agency address these objectives with existing resources. According to Rep. Hines who authored the bill, “the costs of administering the new director of Homelessness was to be fully funded with federal grants provided by Congress through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Louisiana taxpayers didn’t have to pay a dime for the new Director and Homeless Council for at least the next two years. The costs thereafter were negligible.”
- SB 221, which was also vetoed by the governor, would have established the State Housing Tax Credit Program to authorize Louisiana Housing Finance Agency to provide refundable state income tax credits for low-income housing development projects receiving reservations or allocations of federal low income housing tax credit.
- HB 521 creates an advisory council to propose ways to eliminate obstacles to the effective delivery of governmental services to Latin Americans.
- SB 261 creates the Commission on Streamlining Government. The Commission is charged with examining each governmental agency's constitutional and statutory activities, functions, programs, services, powers, duties, and responsibilities to determine which of these can be eliminated, streamlined, consolidated, privatized, or outsourced in an effort to reduce the size of state government.
New fiscal year, new budget
Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Bill Chart for 2009 Legislative Session
Louisiana Association of Non Profit Organizations, Legislative Wrap Up 2009
Louisiana Wildlife Federation, Legislative Session Wrap - 2009 Regular: More Conservation “Action” Than Expected