06/08 - Session Review: A Legislative Report Card

What bills made it through to the Governor’s desk and how will they affect you and the state?

Workforce development"the budget"a possible income tax reduction? The new Legislature’s first regular session adjourns at the end of June. What bills made it through to the Governor’s desk and how will they affect you and the state? Tune in to Louisiana Public Square on Wednesday, June 25th as we host Session Review: A Legislative Report Card.

Panelists:

* Sen. Eric LaFleur, (D) from Ville Platte, Finance and Joint Budget Committees

* Sen. Mike Michot, (R) from Lafayette, Chairman of Finance and Joint Budget Committees

* Rep. Jim Tucker, (R) from Terrytown, Speaker of the House

* Barry Erwin, President & CEO of Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL)

Backgrounder

This session of the Legislature may well be remembered for just two of the many items it considered over the past 12 weeks: the dismantling of the Stelly Tax plan and the legislative pay raise.

Several years ago, legislators passed the Stelly Plan, which reduced the state’s dependence on sales taxes and increased its dependence on personal income taxes to fund state government. The 2008 legislature - acting independently of the governor - retained the Plan’s low sales tax, but reduced personal income tax rates to about what they were before the Stelly Plan went into effect. That change will pull about $300 million out of the treasury and into the hands of mostly middle and upper income tax payers. Proponents of the legislation said Louisiana citizens were being over-taxed. Opponents claimed that the new law would increase Louisiana’s dependence on the price of oil and peg state revenues to the inevitable fluctuations of sales taxes.

But the warm feelings that may have been generated by the tax cut turned into a firestorm of rage when legislators voted themselves a doubling of their pay. Some of the anger was directed at the governor when he said he would not veto the raise. Jim Brandt, President of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said, "I think the pay raise issue will probably be the defining issue of this entire session. It will be how it will be remembered."

The following summary of highlights from the 2008 Legislative Session is provided courtesy of the Council for A Better Louisiana [CABL]. CABL is a nonprofit, nonpartisan statewide organization working on issues in the public interest. Visit CABL.org to join CABL.

The CABLWire for Thursday, June 19, 2008 to Wednesday, June 25, 2008

HIGHLIGHTS

The Final Flurry

By law the current regular legislative session must end by 6 p.m. Monday and you would be hard pressed to find anyone around the Capitol who doesn’t think that magic hour can’t come soon enough. Though the debate over legislative pay raises has dominated just about everything over the last couple of weeks, a number of the session’s major issues have become pretty much resolved in the last several days. Perhaps the biggest is the budget.

Budget

The Senate has now passed a $29.8 billion state budget and sent it back to the House of Representatives to see if they will approve the version senators finalized last night. The Senate made a number of significant changes, but there don’t appear to be any major controversies. The biggest changes had to do with restoring funding to programs or initiatives that House members cut a few weeks ago. Most were in education and health care, and most have been restored at or near the levels the governor originally proposed. Both chambers have also approved the state’s capital outlay program which funds construction projects around the state. Showing rare restraint, the Legislature added only $20 million in new projects to whittle down a huge backlog of older projects that are left over from last year.

Higher Education

It takes a lot of votes to allow state college boards to raise tuition at Louisiana universities - two thirds of both chambers of the Legislature, to be exact. After action this week, legislation to allow for modest increases in tuition over the next four years has passed the House and Senate and, barring any last minute glitches, should be sent to the governor for his signature. Louisiana has done a good job in recent years of increasing state funding to higher education, but tuition rates that are significantly lower than most other states have kept overall funding for our post-secondary institutions far behind their peers around the region and the nation. On a related note, the changes made by the Senate to the budget restored about $13 million to higher education to bring its funding back to the regional average for only the second time in almost 30 years.

Workforce Development

After languishing on the legislative calendar for weeks, Governor Jindal’s proposal to revamp workforce training efforts in the state is moving again. Similar bills are awaiting final passage on both the House and Senate floors and should receive favorable votes with little controversy. Funding for a "rapid response" training program to get skilled workers into the workforce quickly to meet the needs of employers has been restored to the tune of $23 million.

Public Education

The biggest issues in education in the final weeks had to do with money. In the budget the Senate restored just over $20 million in cuts, the largest of which was $12.5 million for a new initiative to help elementary school students with reading and math. Legislators also approved the $3.2 billion Minimum Foundation Program which is the funding formula for all of public education. This week also saw the final passage of the governor’s $10 million pilot "voucher" or scholarship program for New Orleans students. It would allow a limited number of children from failing public schools to attend private schools. Finally, the House is set to consider a bill already passed by the Senate which would gradually expand funding for the state’s LA-4 pre-k program to cover all four-year-olds (not just at-risk children) if the dollars are appropriated.

What’s Left?

While most of the questions have pretty much been answered about most of the major legislation this session, there are a few bills of interest to CABL that are still unresolved.

The legislation to provide more appropriate financial disclosure for volunteer members of boards and commissions has passed the Senate and is awaiting debate today in the House. CABL supports this legislation and believes it will make it easier for citizens to offer their public service on state boards and commissions.

On Friday the House will debate SB 499 which makes changes in the definition of a "lobbyist." Again, these are needed changes which will allow citizens greater leeway in interacting with their state government without having to register as a "lobbyist." Professional lobbyists and governmental relations specialists would still have to register and file financial disclosure reports.

Finally, legislation is still pending that would make much-needed reforms in the state’s capitol outlay process for funding state construction projects. Two competing approaches are still in play and CABL hopes the differences between the administration and some legislative leaders can be resolved to assure passage of some type of meaningful reform legislation in this area.

Our Panelists:

This program was also funded in part by the Louisiana Forestry Association

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