Budget, education, Medicaid reform on tap for legislature

By By Jim Beam / American Press

Budget and education reforms, Medicaid and cigarette tax increases will dominate the third week of committee debate at the

Louisiana Legislature.

The “Fiscal Hawks,” a largely Republican group of lawmakers, want to streamline the budget process, better distinguish between

recurring funds and one-time money and add additional responsibilities to the Revenue Estimating Conference that forecasts

the state’s revenue stream during its annual meetings.

The House Appropriations Committee will debate the budget bills during its Monday and Tuesday sessions. The administration

of Gov. Bobby Jindal reportedly opposes major changes to the current budgeting process, which is largely controlled by the

governor’s office.

Reps. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, and Jay Morris, R-Monroe, have measures that would set up two separate appropriations bills.

One would deal with revenues over which the Legislature has control (discretionary) and the second with non-discretionary

funds dedicated to a specific purpose.

Bills by Reps. Lance Harris,

R-Alexandria, and Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, would broaden the role of

the Revenue Estimating

Conference. The Harris measure would require the REC’s revenue

forecast to include a projection of all state general funds,

self-generated revenues and statutorily dedicated funds. The

conference would also have to designate certain funds as one-time

money.

The House Education Committee will hear legislation Wednesday dealing with some of the education reform measures that were

enacted last year and rejected by state courts. Some of those decisions have been appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, chairman of the committee, has a measure defining the responsibilities of local school boards

and superintendents. It is a subject in one of the bills ruled unconstitutional because it contained too many subjects.

Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, has two

bills before the committee. House Bill 206, a proposed constitutional

amendment, would

allow the Legislature to create “local public schools” across

parish lines. Current law requires it to create parish or city

school districts within parishes. Seabaugh had a similar amendment

in 2012 that got 53 votes in the House, but 17 votes short

of the required two-thirds majority.

The second Reynolds bill (HB 160) would delay the new teacher evaluation system until the 2013-14 school year.

Rep. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, has HB

267 that would reverse the decision of the Louisiana High School

Athletic Association

to separate the playoff system for high school football. It would

prohibit public schools from discriminating based on school

admissions criteria in classifying schools into divisions for

competition in any sport during the regular season or playoffs.

The authority of the state Board of

Elementary and Secondary Education to establish letter grades for

schools is changed in

HB 466 by Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson. The proposed legislation

says any method or formula for determining school and district

letter grades would be contingent on approval of the House and

Senate education committees.

Rep. Lenar Whitney, R-Houma, has HB 644

that gives the local school superintendent – not the school board --

the authority

to use new salary schedules to determine salaries. It would also

apply the salary schedule to school system employees in addition

to teachers and all other school employees.

The House Health and Welfare Committee

on Wednesday will hear three bills that would require the state to

participate in the

extended Medicaid program provided for in the Affordable Care Act,

commonly called Obamacare. Gov. Bobby Jindal has refused

to expand the state’s Medicaid program, calling it costly,

outdated and inefficient.

Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, has HB

429, a proposed constitutional amendment that prohibits a law or rule

from compelling

any person, employer or health care provider to participate in a

health care system. It would permit them to purchase health

insurance in private health care systems.

Cigarette tax increases are on Monday’s

agenda for the House Ways and Means Committee. Four proposals would

raise the tax

from 36 cents per pack to either 60 cents, 68 cents or $1.41 per

pack. Mississippi has a 68-cent tax, and it is $1.41 in Texas,

both neighboring states.

Gov. Jindal has said he would veto any tax increases that raised state revenues. He proposed a $1.41-per-pack cigarette tax,

but those revenues were going to replace funds lost by repeal of state income taxes, a move that fizzled.

The committee on Tuesday will hear

bills granting additional tax exemptions and credits. Rep. Jim Fannin,

D-Jonesboro, chairman

of the House Appropriations Committee, last week urged lawmakers

to quit giving tax exemptions at a time when the state budget

is facing serious funding problems.

The committee will also discuss HB 629

by Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond. It would establish the Office of

Debt Recovery

within the state Department of Revenue. The state is owed large

sums that haven’t been collected. The new office would collect

debts on behalf of state agencies that do not have debt collection

contracts with the state attorney general’s office.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday will hear HB 88 by Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Erat, that establishes

term limits for six statewide elected officials. They are the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, attorney

general and commissioners of agriculture and insurance.

The six officials could only serve

three consecutive terms. The governor is already limited to two

consecutive terms. Champagne

had an identical constitutional amendment in 2012, but it only

received 49 votes, 21 short of the required two-thirds (70).

The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Friday will take up cooperative endeavor agreements that would turn over

operation of the charity hospitals in New Orleans and Lafayette to private hospitals.

Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, has

HB 35 that would protect the retirement benefits of charity hospital

workers who lose

their jobs because of the hospital changes. It would apply to

members of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System and

Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana.

Those who have 25 or more years of service and lose their jobs would be eligible for retirement, and, regardless of age, would

not have their benefits reduced.