Last Modified: Tuesday, June 05, 2012 5:15 PM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers shut down their regular legislative session Monday, ending three months of bitter disputes over budgets, education and retirement.
The session gave Gov. Bobby Jindal significant wins on his massive revamp of Louisiana's education system. But it also highlighted deep divisions between the GOP governor and a bloc of House Republicans who question his conservative credentials on spending matters.
Jindal also lost his push to change the state's pension plans and costs for existing workers, instead only getting through to final passage a measure to create a new retirement plan for rank-and-file workers hired in 2013 and beyond.
In the final hours of the session, lawmakers completed work on a $4 billion multiyear construction budget and gave final passage to a $3.4 billion elementary and secondary school funding formula.
Jindal had an early string of victories on his education proposals, winning passage of an historic overhaul of public education financing and structure in Louisiana.
In a state where student performance lags the nation, the complex bills will make it harder for teachers to gain tenure while establishing a statewide voucher program for private school tuition and multiplying the ways to create charter schools. The bills also lessen local school board authority in hiring and firing decisions, expand online schools and restructure public financing of education.
"The education reforms approved by lawmakers are truly major and the significance of them is hard to overestimate. If we give them time to work, they will make a positive difference in public education," said Barry Erwin, president of the nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana.
Critics promised lawsuits. Backing came over the opposition of teacher unions, local school board leaders and several thousand teachers who claimed the governor had launched a "war against teachers" and public education.
Later in the session, lawmakers also went along with Jindal-backed proposals for the state's $25.6 billion operating budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The 2012-13 spending plans include more than $300 million in patchwork, one-time funding to keep the budget in balance.
The budget will remain largely flat next year, with sharp increases in Medicaid funding, the elimination of more than 6,000 state jobs and another round of cuts to public colleges.
Jindal described the budget as a responsible spending plan that "continues to reduce the size of state government and protects critical services, including higher education and health care."
But a bloc of conservative lawmakers in the House disagreed, calling it fiscally irresponsible to use one-time dollars that aren't certain to reappear year after year to pay for ongoing services and programs. They complained that Jindal had previously criticized the use of one-time money, only to promote using it year after year to piece together the budget once state revenues dropped and the national recession it.
"I still want to get to a point where we are better stewards of the people's money," said Rep. Raymond Garofalo, R-Chalmette, a freshman lawmaker who voted against the budget.
The House and Senate also agreed to tap into the state's "rainy day" fund for nearly $205 million to fill a gap in this year's budget.
Legislators bucked the governor on his plans to sell a state prison in Avoyelles Parish and his proposal to merge the governor's Office of Elderly Affairs into the state health department.
The governor's largest defeats, however, came on a package of retirement changes that would have charged 55,000 state employees more for pensions, make them wait longer for their full retirement payments and change the formula for calculating their benefits. Lawmakers resisted the proposals, with opponents saying it would be improper to change existing agreements with state workers.
Jindal administration officials claimed they won passage of their most important pension proposal, which will create a new pension plan for future rank-and-file state workers, called a "cash balance" plan. Employees hired after July 1, 2013, will receive an investment account similar to a 401(k) plan, instead of a monthly retirement payment based on their salaries and years of employment.
With that change, Louisiana will become the first state in the country to offer only a cash balance plan for some of its workers, without those employees also being in the federal Social Security system.
Supporters described the change as a way to rein in the growth of retirement systems that are more than $18 billion short of the funding they will need to cover all pension benefits. Opponents said the cash balance plan won't give workers enough of a safety net because they don't have Social Security.
In other legislative action, business tax breaks sought by the Jindal administration to attract corporate headquarters and other types of companies were passed, but with more restrictions than were sought by the governor.
Abortion will be banned 20 weeks after fertilization, except in limited medical cases where the mother's life is in danger. An ultrasound will be required 24 hours before an abortion, instead of two hours.
Voters will be asked on the November ballot if they want to enact term limits on their local school boards and expand a local property tax break to offer it to more companies. They also will be asked to decide if they want to rewrite the state's constitutional protections for weapon owners and strike a provision that gives the Legislature explicit authority to limit concealed handguns.
Ethics laws were tweaked. Sex offender reporting requirements were toughened, and new limits were placed on them.
Attempts were rejected to put caps on the free college tuition program called TOPS, to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving and to expand a prohibition on smoking in certain buildings.Online: Louisiana Legislature: www.legis.la.gov