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Legislative Roundup: Area lawmakers oppose raises for judges

Last Modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013 9:55 PM

By John Guidroz / American Press

BATON ROUGE — Two Southwest Louisiana lawmakers opposed to raising salaries for state judges over five years, saying that other state workers have not seen a pay raise in several years and that the state should focus on its budget issues.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 27-9 in favor of Senate Bill 188, by Sen. Dan Martiny, R-Metarie. It heads to the House for consideration.

Starting in July, salaries for Supreme Court justices would increase by 5.5 percent; appeals court judges by 3.7 percent; and district, city and parish court judges by 4 percent. Salaries for all judges would increase by 2.1 percent in 2014 and for the next three years after that.

The legislation was modeled after recommendations issued in January by the state’s Judicial Compensation Commission.

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, and Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, opposed the measure. While judges need compensation for their work, Johns said, “the timing wasn’t right” to push the bill.

Morrish said his vote “has nothing to do with the performance or the work ethic of the judges.” But he said other state workers have not received a raise in six years.

“What we need to do here is find a way in a time of budget deficits, if we can come out of those deficits, to get pay raises for our state employees,” Morrish said. “We spend a lot of time talking about business tax credits. I’m sure they are well-deserved, but our employees can’t continue to function on a wage that, in some cases, puts them below the poverty level.”

The legislation includes an amendment requiring the funds to come from the annual judicial budget, instead of the state’s general fund. According to New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, the 2013 pay raise would cost nearly $2.5 million, “and between $1.3 million and $1.4 million for every subsequent year until 2018.”

Morrish and Johns also voted against legislation that would allow parish assessors to increase their compensation by 4 percent each year for four years, starting in 2013. The Senate voted 28-10 on May 15 in favor of Senate Bill 63, by Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia. It is in the House for consideration.

Danahay bill clears Senate committee

A Senate committee approved legislation Thursday requiring all refineries to pay a fee for receiving barrels of oil, instead of those fees being paid mostly by local refineries that get oil from marine vessels.

The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee approved House Bill 636, by Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur. It heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Danahay said refineries would pay a quarter-cent per barrel of oil received, with the money going into the Oil Spill Contingency Fund. Refineries now pay 2 cents for every barrel transported by a marine vessel, with Phillips 66 in Westlake and Citgo in Lake Charles paying most of the cost.

Brian Wynne, director of the state Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, said he is concerned that lowering the fee would not generate enough money to immediately respond to spills.

Danahay said the fund would remain revenue neutral despite the lower fee. Refineries now contribute about $2.5 million to the fund annually, he said.

The proposal also calls for refineries to pay a half-cent per barrel if the Oil Spill Contingency Fund dips below $5 million and if more than 100,000 gallons of oil are spilled.

The fee would also increase if the fund drops below $5 million because of costs associated with the removal and containment of oil, damages from an oil spill, protecting or restoring damaged natural resources, or operating costs and contracts for response and prevention. Operating costs and contracts would only include administrative and personnel costs within the Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office.

The half-cent rate would remain in place until the fund reaches $7 million, Danahay said.

“It would keep the fund healthy to react to oil spills that take place,” he said.

Danahay said the legislation would eliminate the fund’s $7 million cap. The cap has not been in effect since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

If approved, the measure would be effective July 2014 or once a settlement is reached in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Danahay said the fees have generated an average of $6.6 million annually over the last three years.

The following stories are from the Associated Press.

Jindal adviser claims LSU privatization deals on track

Gov. Bobby Jindal's top budget architect said Thursday the state will have enough money to cover the costs of privatizing nearly all of the LSU-run hospitals next year without shrinking services to the poor and uninsured.

Three deals have been signed, for the hospitals in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said deals for six more hospitals — located in Houma, Bogalusa, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Monroe and Pineville — will be completed by the end of next month.

"Those deals are on schedule," she said in a conference call with reporters.

The hospitals, which are used to train many of the state's medical students, will all be under private management by Jan. 1, Nichols said. The only other university hospital, in Tangipahoa Parish, will remain under LSU control.

Nichols addressed questions raised by the Legislature's financial analysts about whether the 2013-14 budget will be short of the money needed to cover the privatization.

A recent presentation by the Legislative Fiscal Office said 94 percent of the dollars set aside by the Jindal administration for the deals had been used up with the first three privatization contracts signed.

Nichols said the administration was asking senators to amend the budget proposal to address the financing gap. She said anticipated lease payments, available state and local dollars and federal Medicaid money will close the shortfall that currently exists in next year's $25 billion budget.

With the changes, Nichols said the total operating budget for all LSU-affiliated hospitals and clinics will be $1 billion next year, an increase from the $955 million budget the facilities had at the start of the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Despite the increase in cost, Nichols said the state will net $100 million in savings next year because of lease payments the private hospital operators will make annually to take over the facilities.

"That's significant savings to the state," Nichols said.

However, that will be offset next year at least partially by one-time costs for termination pay and unemployment for laid off LSU hospital workers, who can reapply for their jobs with the new hospital operators. Analysts for the Legislature have pegged the layoff costs at $42 million so far, and said another $15 million could still be looming.

Nichols said the state will have other lowered costs long-term on maintenance and state employee retirement. The private entities that are taking over management of the hospitals and clinics also will take over maintenance of the facilities, she said.

Three privatization contracts have been signed.

In New Orleans and Lafayette, private hospital operators will take over LSU hospital management on June 24. In Baton Rouge, the LSU hospital was shuttered last month, with most of its services transferred to a private hospital in the city.

Five more contracts are slated for consideration by the LSU Board of Supervisors next week.

Senate rejects move to stop Common Core standards

The Louisiana Senate has killed a resolution that sought to keep the state from using a set of uniform national standards for public school testing, called Common Core standards.

The action Thursday came a day after the Senate Education Committee advanced the proposal without taking action. Senators voted 27-8 to shelve the legislation and keep it from moving any further.

The standards are a set of guidelines for student learning at each grade level that have been adopted by 45 states. They are being incorporated into the standardized tests given each spring to Louisiana's public school students.

Opponents criticize use of the standards as states abdicating local control of their curriculum to the federal government.

No formal objection to federal health care overhaul

A St. Tammany Parish lawmaker Thursday jettisoned his proposal seeking to put a formal objection to the federal health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama into Louisiana's Constitution.

Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, withdrew the bill from the files of the House, after he failed to win passage only days earlier.

The proposal (House Bill 429) would have amended the Louisiana Constitution to include a prohibition of any law that requires a person or health care provider from participating in a health system and to say a person couldn't be fined for not participating.

Those are requirements included in the federal Affordable Care Act.

Hollis said he didn't propose the measure as a partisan issue. He described his bill as preserving the rights of individuals and families. But critics said the state couldn't nullify a federal act that has been found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate panel approves 2-cents tax on cell phones

A new 2 cent monthly tax on cellphones aimed at helping provide services for people with hearing impairment won the support Thursday of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

The House-backed bill would change the current law by reducing the amount of tax levied per month from 5 cents on landline phones to 2 cents and would broaden the tax to include wireless devices. Data-only wireless devices or prepaid cellphones would be exempt.

Representatives from the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf told senators the change was needed because the dollars raised by the existing tax have dropped significantly with the increased use of cellphones.

The reworked tax would generate about $1.9 million a year, which would supply about 70 percent of the agency's annual budget to continue providing services, said Brandi Berkeley, chair of the commission.

"The revenue generated from the nickel per month from the landline phone services has decreased exponentially to the point that it's insufficient to meet the needs of the deaf communities," Berkeley said.

Tax dollars provide hearing aids, sign language interpretation, captioning and telecommunications services for hearing-impaired indigent and elderly. Berkeley said the commission served 21,396 people in 2012.

Earlier this session, the House approved the idea despite opposition from Gov. Bobby Jindal, who opposes anything that would raise taxes.

Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, the bill sponsor, said he continues to work with the Jindal administration on an alternate funding method. But he said they have not come to an agreement.

Supporters have argued the bill isn't a tax hike because it would bring the tax revenue up to the levels previously collected before cellphones caused a drop in landline phone use.

The bill, approved without objection by the Senate committee, heads next to the full Senate for consideration.

Raises for parish clerks of court

Parish clerks of court will be allowed to get annual 4 percent pay raises for the next four years, if Gov. Bobby Jindal agrees to a bill that received final passage Thursday with a 27-7 vote of the Senate.

Jindal hasn't decided whether he will support the bill, according to his spokesman.

The salary boosts could cost up to $1.2 million over four years, and would only be allowed if clerks complete an annual certification and maintain the certification.

The bill (House Bill 174) by Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, heads to the governor's desk. The raises would begin in the 2013-14 budget year, and salaries could continue to increase each year through 2016-17.

Not all 65 clerks are certified, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Clerks currently are paid up to $108,000 a year in the largest parishes and up to $88,000 annually in smaller parishes.

Other legislative action

• The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee refused to create a new tax incentive program pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration to attract airlines to the state, because of concerns about its price tag. The Legislative Fiscal Office estimated the program could cost Louisiana anywhere from $34 million to $100 million a year in direct subsidies. Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret disputed those estimates.

• The Louisiana House held its Memorial Day celebration Thursday, complete with a 21-gun salute on the state Capitol grounds. The event honored soldiers killed in the line of duty, including two soldiers from Louisiana who died this year.


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