Jim Beam column: Landry scores major victory

Published 6:26 am Saturday, May 18, 2024

With just over two weeks to go in the current legislative session, there can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that Republican Gov. Jeff Landry is making major changes to state government. Members of the GOP-dominated Legislature have been more than anxious to do the governor’s bidding since they convened March 11.

Landry’s biggest victory to date apparently came Thursday evening when a previously reluctant state Senate voted 24-15 for a bill that would give parents tax dollars to pay for private schools. The measure now heads to the House.

Southwest Louisiana Republican Sens. Mark Abraham of Lake Charles, Heather Cloud of Turkey Creek, Mike Reese of Leesville, and Jeremy Stine of Lake Charles voted for the bill. Four Republicans joined 11 Democrats in opposing creation of education savings accounts (ESAs).

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The Advocate said Landry was backed by influential conservative groups and GOP donors who have long sought to offer students an alternative to the public school system. However, the governor didn’t get everything he wanted.

The ESA grants would initially go only to low-income families, students with disabilities, and students seeking to transfer out of public schools. If Landry’s goal is reached, any parent could eventually apply for the money regardless of financial need and even if their children already attend private schools.

The amended bill does away with fixed grants that ranged from $5,200 for higher-income families to more than $15,000 for students with disabilities. That decision will now rest with members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).

When fully implemented, the ESA program (school choice) is expected to cost over $500 million annually. Landry suggested the Legislature could pay for the program by rewriting part of the state constitution that has been scheduled for August.

The House voted 75-27 for House Bill 800 that sets up the convention. The bill is awaiting a hearing by the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Louisiana Illuminator reported Wednesday that the Senate at that point was not close to supporting a convention because its members have “the same amount of questions.” One of those questions is how to pay for the ESA program.

Landry said, “There are pots of money that we could absolutely use that  are restricted from us.”

The governor didn’t say where that money was, but public school supporters seem convinced it would come from the constitutionally protected Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) that funds public education.

BESE’s approved MFP ($4.1 billion) has been approved by the House and is awaiting action in the Senate Education Committee. The Advocate said school board members, superintendents, and teachers have pleaded with Republican lawmakers to reject the ESA program, but to no avail.

Minutes before the ESA bill passed Thursday, Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said, “This is an abandonment of public education.”

The ESA bill and others approved by the Legislature apparently are also ending the separation of church and state. Louisiana has become the first state in the nation to require that public universities and K-12 schools display the Ten Commandments in every classroom.

The House on April 10 voted 82-19 for the bill and the Senate vote Thursday was 30-8. Rep. Wilford Carter, D-Lake Charles, was the only Southwest Louisiana House member to vote against the bill. The other Republican members of the House and Senate were for the legislation.

Last year, legislators approved a bill requiring schools to display the U.S. motto, “In God We Trust,” in every classroom.

Good government advocates did win a major victory when Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said, “Two controversial bills that would limit public records access — and that have been panned by good government groups — are unlikely to move forward this legislative session.”

One bad bill is expected to become law. It gives the governor authority to appoint 7 of the 11 members of the state Board of Ethics. Senators approved the bill and it got 7-6 approval by a House Committee. It is awaiting final action  in the House.

The chances of killing this one appear to be slim to none in the always-willing-to-please House with its 73 Republicans.

Landry has already made too many undesirable  government changes. However, if the state Senate eventually approves the holding of a constitutional convention, the governor will definitely be well on his way to changing the face of Louisiana government.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than six decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871 or jim.beam.press@gmail.com.


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