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Legislative Roundup: Budget deal passes in session's final hours

Last Modified: Thursday, June 06, 2013 6:26 PM

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers agreed to a $25.4 billion budget compromise in the final hours of the legislative session Thursday, averting a last-minute meltdown over the deal and then wrapping up work before their deadline.

The budget will finance state government operations in the 2013-14 fiscal year that begins July 1. It received final approval with a 38-1 Senate vote and a 104-0 House vote, along with a package of bills to make the budget balance.

The final deal was backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"I've never seen a process that worked like this. It was a process where House members came together with Senate members. We sat together, we worked together, we reached agreements unlike I've ever seen before," said Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, one of the longer-serving members of the Legislature.

Passage of the budget bills completed a two-month session that saw Jindal's central legislative goal shelved on the opening day.

The Republican governor proposed a sweeping tax rewrite that would have eliminated Louisiana's income taxes in exchange for higher state sales taxes charged across more items. But he scrapped the plan in a speech to lawmakers, rather than risk an embarrassing defeat.

The tax restructuring plan drew ire across the political spectrum, criticized by religious leaders, the state's leading business lobbying group and the governor's own hired economic consultants.

Jindal sought to keep alive the idea of phasing out Louisiana's income taxes. But lawmakers in the House quickly killed that proposal without even taking a vote because of concerns such a change could devastate the state's budget, which they have struggled to balance through shortfalls during Jindal's years in office.

The action early in the session left the governor with a limited legislative agenda.

Asked what the governor achieved, Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, replied: "Not much. I can't think of anything."

Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, said Jindal's tax proposal was so significant, it made sense he had little else to push in the session.

"He was taking on Goliath and trying to do it in a short amount of time. Once he set that aside, which I do think was the right move, there weren't a lot of other things, high-profile issues that it seemed like he was pushing, but that's understandable," Broadwater said.

After the failure of his tax plan, Jindal largely played defense, successfully killing attempts to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act and helping to defeat any efforts to raise taxes or make substantial rewrites to tax break programs.

"I think every session's got its challenges and its rewards. I think this was a very good session for the people of Louisiana," Jindal said. "Look, the education reforms continue again without delay, fully funded. We're not expanding Medicaid. We're not raising taxes. And we're making an increased investment in K-12 education."

Lawmakers discarded significant pieces of Jindal's budget proposal and instead worked on their own version of next year's spending plans, as House members continued to assert a new autonomy from the Jindal administration in a state where the governor traditionally holds significant sway over the Legislature.

An unusual alliance between conservative House Republicans, House Democrats and the Legislature's black caucus held throughout the budget negotiations and forced concessions from the Senate to get a spending plan passed.

"We showed our independence as a body and brought forth a truly bipartisan effort to create a sound and reasonable budget," House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, told the House.

The budget deal includes a $69 million increase for local school districts sought by House Democrats and limits on the patchwork financing used to pay for continuing programs to address concerns from House Republicans.

Also, Jindal has agreed to sign bills sought by conservative House lawmakers seeking to change the budget process in later years in the hopes of getting enough support for passage of the budget.

In exchange, the governor's voucher program will be expanded next year to cover more students.

In other areas of debate, lawmakers refused to relinquish their control over college tuition rates and rejected attempts to put a cap on the tuition awards given to students through the free college program called TOPS.

A bid to open more of the governor's records to the public was defeated, after Jindal opposed it.

Lawmakers delayed by a year Jindal's plan to shift rank-and-file workers to a 401(k)-style retirement plan, because of outstanding legal questions. And they added new restrictions on abortions and cell phone use while driving, while broadening gun rights in the state.

Doctors will be required to be present when the abortion pill is administered, rather than overseeing it through a web conference. Drivers won't be able to post to social media sights like Twitter and Instagram while driving.

The Legislature made it a misdemeanor crime to publish the names and addresses of people with concealed handgun permits, and they created a lifetime concealed weapons permit. But senators stalled House bills that sought to ban enforcement of certain types of federal restrictions on guns in Louisiana, raising constitutional concerns.

Lawmakers pass bill protecting ID of gun owners

Journalists, bloggers or anyone else will be prohibited from publicly identifying applicants for concealed handgun permits in Louisiana.

A bill that will make it a misdemeanor crime to release the information received final passage Thursday and heads to Gov. Bobby Jindal's desk. A spokesman for the governor says Jindal will sign the bill into law.

The House approved the measure 91-2 on Wednesday, while the Senate voted 34-2 in favor on the last day of session.

The bill will make it a misdemeanor to release or publish the names or addresses of permit owners and will carry a $10,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Barfield takes job as Jindal revenue secretary

Gov. Bobby Jindal officially has a new revenue secretary, months after he named who he wanted in the job.

Tim Barfield told lawmakers Thursday that he was formally appointed as secretary of the Department of Revenue.

Barfield started working as department head in October, but he was called executive counsel in order to get a pay hike. His $250,000 salary was twice what was included in this year's budget.

Jindal put Barfield in the executive counsel job to circumvent the salary cap on the secretary's position, until lawmakers agreed to the pay hike in next year's budget.

Barfield received Senate confirmation Thursday, despite objections from Democratic Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who said Barfield's appointment was improperly handled by the administration. She called his time as executive counsel a "shell game."

Refinancing tobacco settlement bonds

The State Bond Commission signed off Thursday on a refinancing of Louisiana's tobacco settlement bonds that will take advantage of low interest rates and generate more than $60 million to plug into next year's budget.

The dollars were included in the 2013-14 budget under negotiation by lawmakers to help pay for the state's free college tuition program called TOPS, so passage was needed to keep the $25 billion spending plan in balance.

The only opposition on the Bond Commission came from its chairman, Treasurer John Kennedy. "I think we're doing the right thing here, but I believe we're picking the wrong structure," he said.

Kennedy said Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration pushed for a refinancing that generates all the savings upfront to plug budget holes. He said the state could save more by stretching out the savings over many years.

The state will save an estimated $144 million over three years.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols has disagreed that another refinancing structure could offer significantly more savings.

Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, said it was too risky to spread out the savings because tobacco use is declining nationwide as taxes are increased and new restrictions are added. "We need to take the upfront savings, rather than over the life of it," he said.

Final passage for parent trigger law

Lawmakers gave final, unanimous passage Thursday to the creation of a "parent trigger" law for poor-performing schools in the Recovery School District.

The measure (House Bill 115) by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, will let parents petition the state-run RSD to return a school back to local control if that school has earned a "D'' or "F'' grade from the state for five consecutive years.

It would take parents of a majority of the students signing the petition. Students must have been attending the school for at least two years in order for their parents to sign.

The Recovery School District is run by the state Department of Education to manage chronically low-performing schools. It currently operates 80 schools around the state, including 68 in New Orleans and eight in Baton Rouge.

Lawmakers sent the bill to Gov. Bobby Jindal's desk with a 98-0 vote of the House and 39-0 vote of the Senate.

Efforts to collect back-owed debts

A bid to centralize and strengthen efforts to collect back-owed debts to state agencies, in hopes of bolstering revenue for the state treasury, received backing from lawmakers and heads to Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Estimates are the measure could generate as much as $200 million over five years.

The bill will create a new debt recovery office in the Department of Revenue and give it the authority to revoke and suspend state-issued licenses for back debts, among other things. It will require agencies to refer all their delinquent accounts to either the attorney general's office or the debt recovery office for collection.

Lawmakers said Louisiana has been too lax in seeking payment for back-owed debts, which are pegged at $1.4 billion.

A compromise version of the bill (House Bill 629) by Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, won final passage with a 95-0 vote of the House and 37-1 vote of the Senate.

Secondhand smoke bill fails

A West Monroe lawmaker's bid to cut down on exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke couldn't get final passage even though it was watered down through the process.

As reworked by the Senate, Rep. Frank Hoffmann's proposal (House Bill 111) would have prohibited smoking within 25 feet of the entrances to state-owned office buildings, not including public college campuses.

The House voted 95-2 for a final compromise version of the bill, but it never came up for a vote in the Senate, stalling it on the calendar when the legislative session ended Thursday.

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