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Budget, education, Medicaid reform on tap for legislature

Last Modified: Sunday, April 21, 2013 10:08 PM

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.

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