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2011 La. Legislative session legacy: Lack of accomplishment

28th June 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
The Louisiana Weekly

The 2011 Legislative Session will likely be remembered more for what was not accomplished than that which was. The SUNO-UNO merger failed. A single college board faced defeat. The gov­ernor’s plan to sell prisons to plug the budget died on arrival (though many one time funds were used to close the $1.6 billion deficit).

The effort to phase out the state’s personal income tax, sans committee or exceptions, came one vote shy of passage in the House. A move by the state’s GOP Speaker, Treasurer, and U.S. Senator to buy Tulane-HCA and restore “Big Charity” instead of building a new University Medical Center in Mid-City never made it out of committee, despite extensive lobbying by each. And, Jindal saw his veto of a four-cent sales tax renewal on cigarettes upheld, only to have the House and Senate include it in a constitutional amendment, one the Governor desperately wants to see passed.

In fact, the last ranks as one of Jindal’s few real successes from the 2011 legislative session, even if it included his hated cigarette tax renewal. At 5:45 p.m., just 15 minutes before the end of the two-month-long session, the State House voted 97-4 in favor of the constitutional amendment and the enacting legislation that would use $40 million from the 1998 tobacco lawsuit settlement to create a self funding mechanism for the TOPS scholarship program.

An amount, thanks to the legislative maneuvering of Sen. John Alario of Westwego, now joined with $12 million from the $.04 cigarette tax. Jindal may have fought the stand-alone bill to renew the four cents, but he acceded to adding the tax to his TOPS measure. Should voters approve the constitutional amendment in the fall, not only will the cigarette tax continue, but TOPS will be mostly self funded for the foreseeable future.

When matched with federal dollars, the constitutional amendment would also free up over $90 million in state funds for other purposes. The Tuition Opportun­ity Prog-ram for Students program is expected to cost $130 million next year, an amount that will mostly be covered by the tax and the tobacco settlement.

The governor’s controversial plan to better fund charter schools by allowing companies to sponsor schools earned passage as well.

Businesses will be able to earn a share of charter school board seats if they provide a facility or land for a charter school or significant upgrades to an existing campus. In exchange, that company would be awarded a minority percentage of seats on the board that runs the school and will be assured 50 percent of the school’s enrollment capacity for its workers’ children.

Critics argued that this would balkanize public schools, but supporters noted the underfunded nature of the school system, particularly the problem of crumbling infrastructure, and said that corporate sponsorships might provide the only answer.

Families of Louisiana National Guard soldiers who died while on active duty after Sept. 11, 2001 finally gained retroactive benefits. That means that the 32 families who previously were not able to get the lump sum payments under current law—due to the death of a loved one—will now see aid.

Jindal not only got his UMC Hospital for which much of Mid-City was cleared, the Governor’s plan to turn over most of Louisiana’s Medicaid program to private insurance companies will come to pass. However, it will need Legislative reauthorization in 2014 to continue.

Tax breaks were also given to an array of businesses, including those in the digital media industry, those that grant high-paying jobs with benefits, and those that develop software. Sales tax exemptions will be granted for breastfeeding items, bottled water and property involved in a hurricane recovery program in New Orleans.

Finishing the work of the Special session, political district lines for the eight elected seats to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education were redrawn. (And the U.S. Justice Department an­noun­ced last week that the new State House map was “pre-cleared,” despite calls by Black legislators that an increase of two instead of three African American-majority districts was insufficient.)

To better fund anti-crime efforts, probation and parole fees were increased. State prisoners will be barred from establishing a Facebook account or using any other social networking sites, along with certain sex offenders who were convicted of sex offenses against a minor and who are out of jail. Low-risk offenders will be eligible for parole after serving fewer years of their sentences. Chemicals sold as bath salts and snorted like cocaine were banned, and an existing prohibition on synthetic marijuana sold like incense was broadened.

In a social conservative victory, abortion clinics must give more information to women before they can terminate a pregnancy, including new signs telling pregnant women that they cannot be coerced into abortion, that fathers are liable for child support and that adoptive parents may pay for prenatal care and birth expenses. (However, an outright ban on abortion was derailed.)

On the immigration front, penalties were boosted for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Contractors with the state will have to verify the citizenship status of workers on any project funded by the state. Efforts, though, to toughen immigration law, similar to the controversial enforcement laws in Arizona, did fail.

Despite Democratic opposition, Louisiana’s presidential primaries will be pushed back from February to March. Candidates who aren’t affiliated with a political party will be listed as “independent” on Louisiana ballots beginning in 2012.

And, compensation will be given to the families of two unarmed Louisiana insurance fraud investigators who were shot and killed earlier this month while looking into a fraud case.

Most importantly, this week saw the passage of a $25 billion budget that will finance ongoing operations of state agencies, services and programs in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Jindal did not get all of his proposed one-time gimmicks to close a $1.6 billion budget gap; three state prisons won’t be sold. Still, there was no shortage of one-time funds, cuts and other financing changes. An estimated $323 million in one-time money is slated to pay for ongoing agency expenses, and about 3,450 jobs will be eliminated.

Yet, despite the governor’s constant efforts, retirement contributions by state employees will not see a boost, as states such as Wisconsin or Ohio have mandate.

The governor won a victory by defeating a popular bill on transparency. Most records in the governor’s office will continue to be shielded from public scrutiny.

Rep. Johnny Labruzzo’s bill to force welfare recipients to face random, mandatory drug testing died.

Equally killed was a requirement that President Barack Obama and other presidential candidates prove their U.S. citizenship before their names can be included on a state ballot. It never got out of committee.

A monument of the Ten Commandments shall not be placed at the Louisiana Capitol.

Social conservatives did have a victory in defeating a proposed law which would have overturned the right of public school science teachers to use supplemental materials in their classrooms beyond state-approved textbooks. Critics said this freedom gave teachers the right to teach “intelligent design in science class.” However, lawmakers also refused to give more flexibility to local school districts to choose the textbooks they want to use, a priority of the Christian Right.

Dispersants, such as those used after the BP disaster, won’t be banned in responding to oil spills in Louisiana waters.

Bans on hand-held cell phone use while driving, and smoking in bars and casinos, failed.

Lawmakers refused to allow concealed weapons on college campuses. They also wouldn’t agree to let two unmarried, same-sex adults to adopt a child together in the state.

Limits for the pay packages of higher education system presidents and public college leaders were removed from the budget.

And, the governor’s highest legislative priority, the merger of the historically Black Southern Univ­ersity at New Orleans with the largely white University of New Orleans will not occur. Nor, will the governing boards of public colleges and universities be merged into one management board, Jindal’s other priority.

The largest tuition increases proposed for four-year college students likewise failed; though, tuition hikes will fall on students at community and technical college campuses and public medical schools. In a small victory for the Administration, the University of New Orleans will be moved away from the LSU System and into the University of Louisiana System, a move with widespread Caucasian and African-American support.

(The AP contributed to this report.)

This article originally published in the June 27, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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