Voters asking same question

“What’s going on in Baton Rouge, Jim?”

Answering that question that is asked often after I return home from the state Capitol isn’t as easy as one might think. Outside of saying to cut the budget, legislators responsible for finding solid solutions for the state’s annual financial problems don’t seem to be making much headway.

The most conservative Republicans in the House, the “Gang of No,” hired a communications consultant to help them spread their budgetcutting message. Meanwhile, college students are anxiously awaiting word about the future of the TOPS scholarship program. Hospitals treating poor and low-income residents are threatening to end their contracts. And higher education leaders are asking for critical budget relief.

Some history was made last week. The Louisiana Nursing Home Association, known for its lucrative political campaign donations to lawmakers, suffered a rare defeat. A bill giving nursing home residents the right to place surveillance cameras in their rooms cleared the House with a unanimous vote and headed to the Senate.

Thankfully, bills aimed at arming teachers and students failed to make it out of committee by a close vote.Gov. John Bel Edwards, whose wife is a teacher, opposed the legislation. The Louisiana Sheriffs Association refused to endorse the idea.

Another surprise last week was the Senate’s 27-10 approval of a measure that ends felony (serious crime) convictions made possible by a 10-2 jury vote that was approved in 1898. Oregon is the only other state that allows it, but it requires unanimous verdicts in murder trials.

The proposed constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and majority approval by state voters. The Senate had one yes vote to spare, and 70 votes will be required in the House. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association opposes the bill, calling for a study instead.

Legislators continue to tinker with ways to toughen up the TOPS program and some bills doing that got out of committee. All of them face tough sledding in both the House and Senate. TOPS has become almost as sacred as the longstanding homestead property tax exemption.

Unpaid school lunches were the subject of other legislation. Some parents haven’t paid the schools for their children’s lunches, and students have been denied meals. That is prohibited in the bill that was approved 71-28 in the House. The sponsor said at least 430 lunches were denied students in 20 schools last year, and it shouldn’t have happened.

School board and principal organizations opposed the measure, saying it would trigger burdensome debt to local school districts. However, there has to be a better way to handle the situation than telling a youngster he can’t eat. The Office of Debt Recovery and the state Department of Children and Family Services offered to help schools with the debt collection effort.

A House committee rejected a proposal to allow Sunday voting. Election day turnouts are extremely disappointing, but opponents of the idea said voting on Sunday wouldn’t help much. The secretary of state is correct when he says voter frustration with public officials, including him, is a major reason why citizens are staying home.

A Senate committee had no problem approving a bill giving physicians more protection during investigations. The president and executive director of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners said they follow the investigation guidelines “exactly as stated in rules and statute.” The executive director said the legislation would make it more difficult for the board to protect the public from disreputable doctors.

Surprisingly, an effort to end occupational licensing in a number of areas is running into opposition. A bill to end it for florists is having trouble. Opponents insist licensing is necessary to protect consumers and ensure their safety.

The Advocate said the Institute for Justice released a report last fall that showed Louisiana and Washington license more lower-income occupations than any other state — 77 of 102 jobs. Supporters of less licensing insist competition is what protects most consumers.

Some legislators continue to try and change sex education teaching in schools, but there is still heavy resistance. After two bills were rejected, The Times-Picayune said, “Louisiana’s public schools will continue to teach abstinence-first sex education, for now.”

The most frustrating part of covering today’s Louisiana Legislature is its unwillingness to come up with a permanent solution to the annual budget shortfalls and the conflicts they generate. A senator sponsoring gambling expansion bills designed to increase revenues said last week he is doing it because “we’re broke and we don’t know how to fix it.”

Actually, that isn’t true. More studies by well-qualified economic experts on how to fix the state’s budget problems have been done than you can count. What the senator should have said is many legislators simply don’t have the courage to do what needs to be done.

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WHAT’S HAPPENING? — Readers want to know what’s going on at the Louisiana Legislature. Budget decision still lingering.

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