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Thursday, April 24, 2014
Southwest Louisiana ,
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(Special to the American Press)

(Special to the American Press)

Lawmakers face lively session

Last Modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:26 AM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed $24.9 billion state budget will be the centerpiece for the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature that begins March 10. However, a number of other issues seem destined to claim many of the news headlines before the session ends June 2.

Common Core, an extremely controversial public education program, may be the most debated topic. The program centers on tougher academic standards for reading, writing and math that were easily adopted, but which have since generated spirited support and opposition.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, has been one of the chief opponents of Common Core. He said he has filed 12 bills dealing with the issue, but wants to get rid of the program altogether. Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, has seven bills in mind that would make program changes. Others also plan to file legislation.

Supporters include chambers of commerce in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport and Lafayette, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Council for a Better Louisiana. Some leaders of those groups know they are in for a real fight, but express optimism that with some tweaking Common Core can survive. It has even been suggested a name change might help.

John White, Jindal’s hand-picked state superintendent of education, has been the main supporter of Common Core. The governor said he backs tougher education standards but he has cooled to the program, complaining about a “federalized curriculum.” Jindal isn’t reluctant to change his views once he sees how the winds of public sentiment are blowing.

Some believe the governor is operating from a weak position because of low job approval ratings, but don’t count him out. The odds are legislators will still be cautious about opposing the man who holds sway over the purse strings.

“Where’s Bobby?” asked The Lens of New Orleans last week. It quoted political insiders as saying Jindal’s ability to get things done has waned, much of that because he has spent so much time out of state.

Two notable exceptions are Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

“I don’t need a whole lot of coaching from him,” Alario told The Lens.

Kleckley said, “Every time I’ve wanted to meet with him, he’s been available.”

You can be sure Jindal is going to push hard to have the Legislature help him kill a lawsuit against nearly 100 oil, gas and pipeline companies. The suit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East wants those companies to pay for coastal erosion that it says was caused by their access canals.

Democrats have been especially vocal about the weakening of the governor’s influence. You can tell from their legislative program that they believe they can prevail on some issues. They want the state to join the expansion of Medicaid that is part of President Obama’s health care plan.

Jindal has stubbornly refused to do it, saying health care at private hospitals that took over the charity system is preferable to Medicaid. The governor has support from Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

A state minimum wage is also on the Democratic agenda. A constitutional amendment and three minimum wage bills have been prefiled. One would raise the wage to $8.25 an hour on July 1, 2015, and $9 on July 1, 2016. Another would raise the wage to $10.10 an hour. The third would raise it to $10. The proposed amendment would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour and adjust it annually for inflation.

If state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, can get his amendment through the Legislature, the governor won’t be able to use his veto power. That would take the issue straight to the state’s voters. Jindal would veto the other three if they got to his desk. The governor has the support of business interests, who also oppose a minimum wage increase.

Republicans control both the House and Senate, so Democrats would need GOP help to establish a state minimum wage. Polls shows a majority of state residents favor an increase in the minimum wage, but getting enough Republicans to go along would be almost impossible in light of Jindal’s opposition.

The annual effort to rein in the mounting cost of the TOPS scholarships will continue this year. The program will cost the state $235 million next year and will climb to $370 million over the next five years. Proposed legislation would cap the awards and make other changes, but it is unlikely it will get anywhere. Jindal opposes any changes, and he is expected to prevail again.

Among other bills in the hopper are those that would reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana, ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to persons under 18, lower the $50,000 threshold for jury trials, try to speed up executions and end the awarding of Tulane University scholarships by legislators.

The Legislature has a lot on its plate that is certain to generate some heated debate. State Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, said it best. He told a Crowley group this week it was “nice to see so many friendly faces. As of March 10, they won’t be so friendly.”

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com.

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