Filed Under:  Local, Politics

About Town…

9th June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore,
Contributing Writer

Legislature Does Little, Budget Unbalanced by Billion… Gov. Piyush Jindal sought to bolster his conservative bonafides last week at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Tea Party and mainstream members of the GOP gathered at the Riverside Hilton in what was almost a mini primary of Republican presidential contenders—in an attempt to give red meat to the crowd, Jindal challenged congressional Republicans to act conservatively or else. “If we do win the majority, they better use it responsibly and they better use it aggressively,” said Jindal of Louisiana, who is considering a presidential bid. “If they get complacent, if they just end up being a cheap version of the Democratic Party, there’s going to be a fierce backlash.”

The irony was that the profligate deficit spending Jindal was so quick to warn against in Washing?ton was exactly the budget that his allies in the Louisiana legislature approved overwhelming the following Monday, June 2–at Jindal’s behest.

State lawmakers passed a $24.6 billion state operating budget which relies on ephemeral funds, likely unavailable next year. The state of Louisiana is effectively $1 billion in deficit, so short is the Treasury of the revenues appropriated for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2015. In percentage terms, that is a deficit figure rivaling Washington’s profligacy.

Laudably, the 2014-2015 budget does provide for more funding for education, more money for people with disabilities, and merit pay raises for state workers. Jindal, at least, so argued to the press. Yet his loudest critic, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards of Amite, who plans to run for governor next year, added that some of these benefits may never come to pass. “We will end up having mid-year budget cuts, and we did nothing in the long term because we have a billion-dollar problem next year.”

At sine die adjournment late last Monday, legislators had sent 884 bills to the governor; nevertheless, the 2015 legislative session is more notable for what did not happen. The House and Senate kept the controversial Common Core standards. Legislators would not act to allow medical marijuana to be dispensed by pharmacists. Members would not address issues of the death penalty, including the looming problem that the state has no means of delivering legal lethal injections. TOPS spending will continue to grow. Bills to boost the minimum wage died. And, the community of St. George will not find legislative roadblocks as it fights to become a City in East Baton Rouge Parish, a precedent that could resonate with breakaway neighborhoods in other parishes—including New Orleans.

Louisiana will not return to electing its state superintendent of education, as one bill proposed, nor will teaching of sex education in public schools become compulsory, as another mandated, nor will it become easier to set up new school districts, as those in Southeastern Baton Rouge desired.

“On defense, I think we did a good job in killing some bad bills,” Jindal said Monday. Unlike 2013, and his initial attempts to abolish the income tax, the governor had few priorities. One of them, a bill permitting courts to dismiss the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East lawsuit filed against 97 oil and gas companies for environmental damage to the wetlands did win approval.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell urged Jindal to veto it. Critics, including Metairie GOP State Senator Conrad Appel, argue that in an unintended consequence, the legislation could affect BP spill claims. New Orleans Democratic Senator J.P. Morrell, himself a supporter of the legislation, did admit that several legislators who voted for the bill are still confident it doesn’t affect BP claims. However, he regrets not inserting an amendment to specifically address that concern. “No one was aware that the bill could have affected BP claims.”

Legislators also backed a measure to make access to abortions rarer through the requirement that physicians who perform them have admitting provisions with a nearby hospital. This is mandated for most outpatient surgeries, but previously had not been a requirement for abortions providers. It could mean the closure of all but one of Louisiana’s abortion clinics.

Moreover, another bill instructs that women be informed of psychological and emotional impacts of abortions. The law will also tell doctors to keep pregnant women on life support to preserve the life of an unborn child.

Much of the billion dollar increase in the budget comes from an unexpected windfall for pensioners. For the first time in over half of a decade, more than 100,000 retired state employees, teachers, school employees and State Police received a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase. However, the larger cheques will be accompanied by new guidelines for future increases. Unforeseen investment earnings of the retirement systems, used to fund COLAs, will be directed to decreasing the $19 billion in pension systems’ long-term liabilities. The underfunded system is a looming fiscal time bomb, largely ignored by governors for the last two decades.

One legislator, State Rep. Joe Harrison, managed to resurrect his nearly dead efforts to create a state Department of Elderly Affairs as only five minutes remained in the session on Monday, June 2. The Napoleonville Republican ran around the House chamber in joyous abandon as his constitutional amendment to create the agency cleared the Legislature barely cleared before just before the 6 p.m. adjournment. Legislators chanted “Joe” and applause rained down to end the 2014 gathering.

The General electorate, though, will have the final say in November whether his House Bill 341, and his two-year effort to amend the constitution and create the agency, will come to pass.

RLC Speakers Push Nigeria Concerns… The aforementioned 2014 Republican Leadership Conference concluded on the final weekend of May after delegates heard from America’s top Republicans, including Chairman Reince Priebus.

As with most years, an emphasis on social issues emerged during the opening session, but in a surprise move of interest to African Americans, speakers pushed U.S. foreign policy with Nigeria to the forefront of the agenda during the final two days.

“The situation in Nigeria should concern all Americans,” RLC 2014 Director Rhett Davis told The Louisiana Weekly. “I believe that we moved the issue back to the front burner after this weekend.”

Conference organizers said in a subsequent statement upon the RLC’s conclusion on May 31, “Boko Haram aims to create an Islamic state governed by sharia law. It primarily launches its bombing campaigns and assassination attempts against Christians in locations such as churches and schools. Boko Haram has also targeted Nigerian police and security forces, military facilities, banks and dissenting clerics. According to al-Qaida expert Richard Barrett, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said several times that his group is part of AQ – or aspires to be.”

The Group has terrorized not only Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, but was also involved in a high-profile kidnapping of a group of young women. As the statement continued, “Hillary Clinton said that the abduction of the girls by Boko Haram was “abominable, it’s criminal, it’s an act of terrorism and it really merits the fullest response possible, first and foremost from the government of Nigeria.”

“On May 12, 2014, the United Nations Sanctions committee on al-Qaeda finally blacklisted Boko Haram while back in November 2013, the UN Human Rights Office had already publicly stated that Boko Haram could be guilty of crimes against humanity.

“As one can see, for all the outrage and finger-pointing, the international community did not take the Boko Haram matter seriously,” the RLC statement concluded.

This article originally published in the June 9, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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