Session so far is mixed bag

LOUISIANA SESSION ENDING — The Louisiana Legislature's fiscal session has to end in two weeks, and much more work remains to be completed.

The Legislature has to adjourn two weeks from today and a number of controversial issues are still undecided. However, rushing through with critical issues is pretty much par for the course.

One of the most important jobs is to come up with a balanced state budget. A $30 billion budget proposed by the House got through there with a 100-1 vote, and it is awaiting final action in the Senate. If the final action comes in the closing minutes of the session, few political observers would be surprised.

The two chambers definitely don’t agree on whether K-12 public education should get an extra $39 million this year, the first increase in a decade. The House left that money out of the Minimum Foundation Program, the formula that funds public education. The Senate approved the MFP with the $39 million included with a 37-1 vote.

A conference committee made up of three members from each chamber may have to resolve that problem, and there is some indication a compromise could be worked out. However, don’t place any bets on the outcome. Compromise in the Legislature has been rare in recent years.

Gambling always creates conflicts, and this year is no exception. Betting on college and professional sports was approved in the Senate with a 36-0 vote, and the bill got through the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee with a 10-6 vote. It is awaiting action by the House Appropriations Committee and is expected to move to the full House.

Bets would only be allowed at 20 locations — the Harrah’s casino in New Orleans, at the 15 riverboat casinos and at the four racetrack casinos. The committee did amend the bill to allow betting at 2,800 video poker locations, but that was later stripped from the legislation.

A bill that would extend the Harrah casino’s exclusive contract in New Orleans, which ends in 2024, for another 30 years cleared the House 84-9. It also got through the Senate Judiciary B Committee with no changes or dissenting votes.

Support by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, is expected to give the contract extension easy approval in the Senate.

Republican legislators are trying to reduce or eliminate the 0.45 percent state sales tax approved last year that brought stability to the state budget. Some of those bills have been sidelined, but the effort won’t be over until the session ends.

GOP lawmakers are also making an effort to reduce local control over the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP). Their legislation hasn’t fared well, but they won’t quit trying.

If any of the tax and ITEP bills make it to the Senate, sanity is expected to — once again — protect the state’s best interests.

Efforts to restore sales tax holidays that were eliminated last year are gaining support. One bill that passed the House 93-2 renewed the Back to School, Second Amendment and Hurricane Preparedness holidays. However, it was amended in the Senate to hold all three sales tax holidays at the same time — the final weekend in July.

The holiday would cost state and local governments $5 million each annually. Previous sales tax holidays, except for the Second Amendment holiday, didn’t include local sales taxes. The legislation cleared the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee and is awaiting action by the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill will have to go back to the House for approval because of Senate changes, and some representatives may object to having the holidays at the same time. However, you can bet the sales tax holidays are coming back.

A five-year pay increase for the state’s 372 judges cleared the Senate with a 35-1 vote and is awaiting action by the House Appropriations Committee. It provides for a 2.5 percent pay hike in each the next five years.

The funds for the first year would come from a judicial surplus, but the state is expected to pick up the tab from thereon that will total $9.5 million by the fifth year. The pay of parish sheriffs was linked to judges in 2012, and they will receive raises from their own funds.

Louisiana executions may continue if a bill that passed the House 68-31 is eventually approved. The state’s last execution was in 2010. They have been delayed because manufacturers who make execution drugs have refused to deliver them to states because of adverse publicity.

The bill that cleared the House provides secrecy for execution drug suppliers. Those who want to end the death penalty opposed the secrecy measure. Supporters of the legislation said the state needs to carry out punishments promised to families of victims.

Unfortunately, tax reform will again have to wait for another day. Supporters got some bills out of committee, but they either died in the House or on the House calendar awaiting action. Legislators are still wary of going too far during an election year.

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