Last Modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 3:53 PM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana higher education leaders are at odds over a proposal to let the community college system tap into state construction dollars outside of the traditional budget process.
The community colleges are winning the legislative battle so far.
A bill that would allow the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to sidestep the construction budget, called "capital outlay," for a list of projects totaling nearly $252 million is nearing final passage.
The measure has received overwhelming approval from the Senate and easily won backing Tuesday from the House Education Committee without a single objection. The proposal is expected to head next to the House budget committee.
Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, describes his bill as helping the community and technical colleges train new employees to meet workforce demands around Louisiana and to help economic development efforts.
"We need a skilled labor force, and the fact is there is not enough capacity at the tech schools and the community colleges to provide it," he said.
The Board of Regents, which oversees all public college systems, said the bill would violate a constitutional process that requires institutions to submit construction needs to Regents, which prioritizes the list and makes the request to the governor and lawmakers.
"The constitution prescribes a process for determining capital priorities," said Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell.
Treasurer John Kennedy opposes Adley's bill, saying it would bust the state's debt limit.
Adley said the state has previously borrowed outside the capital outlay process for the community college system. LCTCS President Joe May advocated for the proposal, saying it would help meet "an explosion of demand" at the community and technical schools.
"We're seeing new projects coming online, crying for skilled workers," he said.
The construction dollars would be doled out beginning in 2015.
Borrowing would be paid back over up to 30 years and would require the approval of the State Bond Commission. Before the bonds could be sold to generate upfront cash for the projects, at least 12 percent of the project cost would have to be matched with private dollars.
The state would have to pay the rest of the repayment costs. Legislative fiscal analysts estimate that could cost about $20 million a year for two decades.
The borrowing wouldn't count in calculating the state debt load that is limited with an annual cap on debt, according to the bill. But Kennedy said he believes the bond rating agencies would still view the debt as breaching the state's debt ceiling.
"A vote for this bill is a vote to exceed the debt limit," he said. He added, "Rating agencies don't care what you call it."
Lawmakers on the House committee repeatedly talked of the needs of a trained workforce and said the community and technical colleges need more space for such training.
"We need these facilities to help them because y'all are overflowing at this time," said Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Erath.
Purcell and Regents Chairman Clinton "Bubba" Rasberry said the four-year university campuses have construction needs, too. Purcell said deferred maintenance needs at Louisiana's college campuses top $1.7 billion.
Rasberry said Adley's bill fosters a new type of competition for money "in the most political way," where schools and college systems can try to circumvent the construction budget process and lobby their individual wants, rather than following a prioritized plan.
Adley described the opposition from Regents as a "turf battle."
The House Insurance Committee scrapped the idea Tuesday in a 9-4 vote against the bill by St. Mary Parish Sen. Bret Allain.
The Senate unanimously agreed to require annual rate hikes over 25 percent by the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to get approval from the House and Senate insurance committees.
That faced opposition in the House, so Allain reworked the measure to simply require rate hikes above 25 percent to go to the insurance committees for review, not approval.
Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon opposed the idea.
The House committee rejected the rewritten version, killing the bill.
A Senate judiciary committee green-lighted a bill Tuesday that would circumvent any possible federal gun regulations by creating a made-in-Louisiana brand of firearms and ammunitions.
The proposal (House Bill 45), which already gained House approval, was passed unanimously by members of the Senate Judiciary C Committee.
Bill sponsor Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, said by creating the Louisiana Manufactured and Firearms and Ammunition Act, gun owners wouldn't be subject to federal restrictions.
As long as the guns are made in the state and stay in the state, they wouldn't fall under the federally regulated commerce clause, he said. Instead, the bill would provide for state licensing and regulations.
A proposal that would allow the state to levy higher fines and penalties for certain violations involving salt mine operations received the backing Tuesday of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
Sen. Rick Ward, D-Port Allen, filed the bill (Senate Bill 139) in response to an on-going environmental incident in Bayou Corne that has resulted in an evacuation order for 150 homes.
The Senate-backed measure is one of several proposals filed in response to the collapsed underground salt mine cavern that scientists say has created a 15-acre sinkhole in the Assumption Parish community. Parish officials and residents have complained that mine operators have been slow to respond to their concerns.
Ward's bill would allow the state to assess daily fines against companies if they are issued a cease and desist order and they fail to take corrective action, if the state has to respond to an incident caused by a violation and if a violation is found to be caused by willful neglect that causes severe environmental damage.
The proposal would increase the daily penalty for violations from $5,000 to $32,500. In addition, civil penalties could be assessed up to $1 million.
The bill now moves to the House floor for further debate.
• A Senate judiciary panel approved a bill that would make it a crime to forge vehicle inspection stickers. Officials from the state Department of Public Safety told the panel that officers have seen an increase in the number of fake stickers. The House-backed proposal (House Bill 364) would provide for a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison if a person is convicted of creating fake inspection stickers. It moves to the full Senate for debate.