BATON ROUGE — You can't sit through committee hearings at the state Capitol from week to week and not feel compassion for those whose lives may be changed by the decisions made by their governor and members of the Legislature.
The overriding concerns, of course, are what is best for the population as a whole. However, the ultimate decisions do affect many citizens who could become victims of the changes.
Gov. Bobby Jindal had three major goals for the current legislative session — education and retirement reform and balancing a $25 billion budget with limited funds.
Most of us thought education reform was a done deal, so we were caught by surprise Tuesday when a House committee approved additional changes affecting teachers.
Teachers were already facing a new evaluation process enacted at a previous session and saw tenure, their job protection system, drastically changed earlier in the current session. Then out of the blue came a Senate bill that reduced extended sick leave for teachers, cut the salary they receive while on leave and make it difficult to get sabbatical leave.
Maybe there are some abuses in sick and sabbatical leaves, but haven't we done enough to teachers during this session? If local school boards don't have the money they need to pay for those benefits, it's because their state funding hasn't increased over the last three years.
Local school boards have already had to absorb the increased costs in many areas of their operations. And the hits kept coming during this session.
School boards have seen creation of a system designed to speed up the process of creating competing new charter schools.They are also going to lose funding to a new student voucher program the governor calls Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence.
Students in schools rated "C," "D" or "F" will be able to use those scholarships to attend other public and non-public schools. The money for the first time in history will come from the Minimum Foundation Program that helps finance local school operations.
Dwayne Lemoine, superintendent of the Avoyelles Parish School System, and Charles Riddle, parish district attorney, put a human face on how the loss of MFP funds to pay for those scholarships is going to affect their parish. They testified before the House Education Committee.
The Avoyelles school system is facing the loss of $800,000, a tidy sum where Lemoine said the poverty rate is 86 percent and the school system is in serious debt. But that is only half the problem. The parish is also under a federal desegregation order requiring it come up with a seven-year plan to upgrade all of its education facilities.
Lemoine and Riddle want to know what they are going to tell the federal judge handling their case. They don't think he will accept any excuses.
How bad are things there? Lemoine said one of the system's buildings survived the Great Flood of 1927. The superintendent also mentioned he is handling curriculum development and other duties because of the shortage of funds.
Talk to legislators from other parts of the state and they will tell you the situation in Avoyelles isn't an isolated incident. Poverty is a fact of life in many parishes. Those of us who live in industrialized urban areas don't see those parts of Louisiana often.
I figured the MFP would be approved, but I thought a few members of the House Education Committee might at least cast a sympathetic vote on behalf of the state's poorer parishes. However, the formula was approved without objection.
Retirement reform is still making its way through the process and more victims are being created in that area. State workers are in line to pay higher retirement contributions and work longer for smaller pensions. Retirees may not get cost-of-living raises for years to come.
Why is it happening?
A veteran who has been a state employee since 1999 said he was on leave Wednesday to address the House Retirement Committee. He said the retirement systems are in debt because the state hasn't paid its share of contributions since the systems were created.
"We are being asked to pay more to work longer and get less," he said.
Finally, there's the budget hassle. Thousands of citizens are worried they will become victims of budget cuts that keep coming — one after the other. Meanwhile, special tax breaks and exemptions to industries continue to cost a billion dollars a year or more.
There is something wrong with this picture, but there doesn't seem to be any serious movement to achieve a better balance between the two. A spokesman for the governor said if money is saved by removing tax exemptions it should be used to grant additional exemptions to stay revenue neutral. Otherwise, it would be a new tax, he said.
As things stand now, citizens can only hope the sacrifices some will have to make in the areas of education, retirement and budget cutting will be worth the cost to those affected by the changes.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees at this stage that the proposed reforms will get the job done. A number of legislators
and others are already convinced they won't make much of a difference, or could even make things worse.