Last Modified: Monday, May 21, 2012 7:16 PM
The Legislature opens the 11th week of its 12-week session today and has 14 days to wrap up a few major loose ends. Two big items still on the agenda are the $25 billion state budget for the new year and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s retirement reform program.
House members sent the spending plan to the Senate short of $268 million in one-time money. The vote to remove that money was 51-49, but the House later had no problem approving legislation 63-38 that allows the raiding of various funds to make it possible to restore the one-time money.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee are conducting hearings on House Bill 1, the governor’s proposed budget. They were given doomsday scenarios by higher education and health care officials about the effect of losing that one-time money. And senators made it clear they are leaning towards putting it back into play.
“I’m sure I’m not going to let these cuts stay in,” said Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin.
Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, said he wants the committee to make the final decision. He disagrees with the House decision to let Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater make cuts based on a menu of suggestions.
The public had an opportunity over the weekend to have input on the budget and pleaded with the committee to restore the funding.
“Funding threats to a program that helps children with developmental disabilities brought parents in droves to the state Capitol on Saturday,” reported The Advocate of Baton Rouge.
“Pushing strollers and wheelchairs, parents crowded the hallway outside the committee room and spilled into three nearby meeting rooms while they waited for their opportunity to speak,” the newspaper said.
It has become standard procedure in recent years for the Senate to restore budget reductions made by the House, and the lower chamber has had to go along at the last minute. Only time will tell whether the House will try to handle things differently this year.
Members of the Jindal administration are still fashioning one of the key bills in their retirement reform package. Creation of a cash balance (401k type) retirement plan for new employees needs only House approval of Senate changes to be sent to Jindal for his signature.
A measure that would have established 67 as the new retirement age for state employees has been rewritten a number of times. It started out exempting everyone 55 or older and 30-year employees. The 30 years was reduced to 20 in one rewriting and the latest word is a higher retirement age will only apply to workers with 10 years’ seniority or less.
The Senate hasn’t heard the bill by Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, and chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee. He told The Advocate it has to be debated by the Senate on Wednesday in order to have time to make it through the legislative process.
Other measures awaiting House action raise employee contributions by 2 percent over a four-year period and change the way pensions are computed. The pending legislation would change the three-year average salary used to figure pensions to a five-year average.
Both bills had to be reworked in order to get through the Senate. Guillory and Jindal spokespersons said they will become law.
Critics of the retirement effort complain it only targets members of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System and higher education members of the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana. LASERS and TRSL officials say that’s unfair because other systems have also added to the state’s retirement debt Jindal wants to reduce. Opponents also insist the proposed retirement changes are unconstitutional.
The House will spend the first part of the week wrapping up action on its bills and start concentrating on passage of Senate bills. The opposite will be true in the Senate.
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans reported the state Department of Education will have a better idea this week about how many students and schools would become involved in a voucher program approved early in the session.
Catholic schools are expected to take most of the students who qualify for the scholarships. John White, state superintendent of education, told the newspaper he would release a final school-by-school list early next week.
One Senate bill of interest to Southwest Louisiana is on Tuesday’s House agenda. Senate Bill 436 by Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, deals with the sale of Toledo Bend water by the Sabine River Authority. It says sales can’t take place without the approval by the natural resources committees of the House and Senate and by two-thirds of local governing authorities in the territory served by the authority.
The House on Thursday will debate SB 698 by Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings. It gives the Port of Lake Charles legal authority to handle maintenance of the Calcasieu River Ship Channel that runs through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.
Cameron officials voiced concerns about the port’s expropriation authority in their parish. Morrish told a House committee that issue would be resolved by the time the measure came up for a House vote.