The 2012 Spring Legislative Session has ended; and the last three weeks certainly lived up to the hype.
From 50 to 80 bills per day, we had our plates loaded with issues to review, debate or concur. Many bills were amended, had amendments stripped from them, to then be amended again.
The overall summary is very mixed, as some really good bills made it to the governor—as did some that are not so great.
HB 1 (Budget Bill) / HB 2 (Capital Outlay) / HB 822 (Sweep Bill)
First, allow me to explain the process; then I'll discuss the issues. The proposed budget comes from the Governor's Office of Administration to the Appropriations Committee in the House in February.
The committee then takes the 300-plus-page bill and amends it by deleting or adding certain monies to pay the bills and balance the budget. This includes, when needed, to use so-called "one-time money" to pay for reoccurring expenses.
In reality, this "one-time" money comes from HB 822 (Sweep Bill) that takes leftover money from various state departments at the end of each year and moves that money to needed areas.
This happens every year when revenue is not enough to cover expenses and has been done this way for many years as a way to make good use of excess funds where it's most needed before adding more expenses.
Essentially, it's no different than saving your change every month and applying it to your bills before spending it on impulse.
Next, the now "balanced budget" is then voted out of the Appropriations Committee and on to the House floor, then to the Senate Finance Committee for their adjustments. The bill then goes to the Senate floor, then back to the House for concurrence. After final vote it goes to the governor for final signature.
HB 2 (Capital Outlay) comes from the House Ways and Means Committee to the House floor with all Capital Outlay projects.
HB 2 is amended and sent to the Senate floor for the same processes. (I am currently working with Senator (Robert) Adley in pitching the projects in Priority 1 in District 10 for top consideration.)
Now, the issue for several years has been use of "one-time money" to balance the budget. I agree that we should develop a better method of ensuring we have money to cover our expenses.
This year, a group of legislators amended HB 1 to take out the use of $267 million of the one-time money. In theory and in being very idealistic, this sounds great and should be the proper thing to do.
In reality, however, to choose to cut out use of all such monies this particular year would have been devastating to our state.
You see, in 2012 alone we already cut out $300 million from the original budget. These cuts were made in an attempt to lower our expenses in the wake of a decreased revenue stream to our state. It took years for us to get in the shape we are in ... and it will take more than one year to get us out of it. $300 million is a lot of money that funded a lot of jobs and programs.
To cut an additional $267 million more in one year would have left the areas of education, health and hospitals, tourism and services to our seniors seriously jeopardized, and these areas are of particular importance to our district. Because of this, I voted for the use of one-time money; but the House majority vote was ultimately against using these funds to pay the remainder of the state's debt.
The Senate Committee and floor ultimately felt the way many of us legislators did—that cutting its use this year in addition to what we'd already cut could overwhelm our state to the point of a crippled rebound—and they added the use of the one-time money back in. The bill is now in the hands of the governor awaiting signature.
The new budget does include cuts to higher education, heath and hospitals, jobs and departments, but the cuts are not near as severe as they could have been. Unfortunately, cuts were necessary because revenue has decreased—and we cannot continuously spend money we do not have.
A group of legislators, including myself, would like to investigate the reasons for our declining revenue and to propose ideas for increasing revenue in other areas. As the economy changes, we must also change.
We plan to take a look at our tax exemptions to determine if they work to bring additional revenue or not. These exemptions are supposed to be an investment, but if they are not bringing any return, we need to rework them.
For example, I am in favor of floating tax exemption programs that can be adjusted yearly to match expenses.
In summary of the budget issues, please be assured that the monies spent are being very closely scrutinized and we understand that we must live within our budget—and our budget must reflect our income.
This is not something we can continue to ignore, and it leaves us with three options: cut expenses, increase income or utilize a combination of the two.
HB 976 (Vouchers)/HB 494 (Tenure)/HB 292 (Term Limits)/and more
What changes this area underwent from beginning to end!
With few compromises and nearly complete party-line voting, these hot-topic bills and the debates that followed were hardcore.
The governor has already signed the major education bills that passed within the first few weeks of session. However, as the reality of costs, accountability and court challenges began to set in, those party lines began to dissolve.
An emerging moderate group of legislators has surfaced and the group has come together to challenge the MFP (funding for K-12 schools) and other details of the procedures associated with the primary education bills (vouchers, Student Tuition Organizations, etc.)
The bottom line is that the bills have passed, but as I feared and discussed in previous reviews, there are many questions and few answers to address the continuous chain of newly-realized problems with their implementation.
The primary problems include financial and academic accountability, teacher evaluations, constitutionality and the validity of receiving schools for the voucher program.
We have to determine which schools can and can't deliver what we need. We have to use the digital age to streamline evaluations, provide protection for our teachers and students and reduce our expenses. There are ways to make this work—but we must be thoughtful and prepared.
Additionally, I caution private schools to carefully consider the consequences of accepting public funds. Just because the state moved very fast in this does not mean that schools should jump too quick.
There will be conditions to accepting public funds, and I would not want to see private schools lose control of their own foundation. Be cautious, patient and thoughtful before acting. It is likely that this program will change often during the course of the next couple of years.
Challenges will continue to surface as we attempt to find reasonable solutions for the above-mentioned problems, as they will have to be addressed within the next year.
We cannot let our children get lost in our politics—and that is exactly what this was. It was politics—not planning—that rushed us into new laws with poor preparation, but we will find solutions.
Higher Education legislation was passed, including SB 103 and 104, which I highly supported. These bills require colleges to cap Baccalaureate Degree programs at 120 credit hours with exemptions for special areas; and requires phasing in of a uniform code numbering system over four years.
This will make it easier to transfer credits from one school to another.
The LSUS-LA Tech merger (HB 964) was another hot topic. This bill was not brought to the floor for vote because of lack of votes in committee. Ultimately, the LSU Board of Regents pledged to increase course offerings at LSUS.
I initially supported the merger because the LSU board has not lived up to their promises in the past. LA Tech has a good track record, and I believe we must have a strong four-year college in Shreveport for the continued growth of our region.
We will have to monitor this over the next few years and follow up with necessary actions if the LSU board does not come through with their new promises.
HB 61 (Cash-balance Plan)
While I believe we can all agree that the retirement systems need adjusting for financial stability, the question is how to do this and remain constitutional.
The only bill that passed regarding retirement was HB 61, the cash balance program. This bill creates a hybrid 401K-type system for new hires only. The problems with this bill according to the state auditor are as follows:
n It does not pay anything towards the UAL
n It does not save any money for the state
n It may actually cost more money than the current defined benefits plan
The other problem surfacing is that it will reduce employee retirement benefits by about 20 to 25 percent, to an estimated 58 to 62 percent of the salary at retirement.
So with no social security to help (because this plan, as mentioned above, does not allow paying toward social security as most private sector employees would have) our retirees in the future will retire into the poverty and welfare level.
This will not make our state a desirable destination for good careers, and we will find it even harder to hire good people to do the jobs we need them to do.
So why did this bill pass? I do not know. The vote was very close until concurrence; but then political pressure put it over the top.
Our state will have to address these problems before this can go into effect.
Fortunately, I was asked by the Retirement Committee chairman to join a team during the year to work on meaningful legislation to bring forth during next year's Session. So, I will be informed of this process; and can bring forth ideas to help.
Economic Development/ Commerce:
HB 674/HB 958/HB 937/HB 694/HB 729
Five bills designed to attract new businesses and help existing businesses were passed with large majorities.
These bills deal with incentives for many sectors of economic development. The sectors targeted are perfect fits for our district and infrastructure from Shreveport to Monroe.
Manufacturing, technology, distribution, data/computer software, renewable energy and destination health care are just a few included in these targeted sectors—all areas perfect for development along I-20.
I believe District 10 is project-ready for many opportunities in the near and long-term future.
A bill concerning the eligibility of warranty for manufactured and modular home owners was also passed. This bill, which I supported, protects owners of such homes under a similar Warranty Act as that of new home owners.
HB 693/HB 771
Two very important insurance bills passed related to expanded coverage of oral anti-cancer medications and services to citizens under the age of 21 with autism spectrum disorders.
I have discussed these in previous reviews; but am very happy to have been part of the committee and floor votes for these measures.
SB 321/SB 317/HB 47/HB 1068/HB 577/HB 49/HB 600/SB 303/HB 4/ SB 61
Several bills I supported were passed relative to criminal law including non-violent/non-sex offender and juvenile "lifer" parole eligibility, DWI offenses, sentencing, guns, synthetic drugs, protection of minors, and regulations on sex offenders.
SB 303 – The right to bear arms is a fundamental right which shall not be infringed and registration shall be subject to strict scrutiny.
HB 577/HB 49/HB 600 – Concerns the strengthening of protection of minors as it relates to the witness of sexual abuse, human trafficking, Caylee's law (reports of missing children). These laws strengthen the penalties for not reporting such crimes against children.
HB 620/SB 753/HB 558 – These bills strengthen existing laws to help with the growing problems with sex offenders.
Such restrictions include bans of incarcerated sex offenders from intentionally visiting or establishing an account on a social networking site (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and unrestricted sex offenders must include in his/her profile that they are a sex offender.
Also, sex offenders (where victim was under the age of 13) are prohibited from being in a public library; and out-of-state sex offenders will be deterred from moving to Louisiana by the requirement that they must serve the full registration term of their sentence, even if it is longer than the registration period under Louisiana law.
SB 708/SB 766
Since I am pro-life, I supported bills that passed easily and addressed stronger pre-abortion measures that must be taken.
These included requiring that the fetal heartbeat be made audible to and ultrasound images be displayed for review by a pregnant woman 24 hours prior to undergoing an abortion.
Additionally, the second bill prohibits an abortion of an unborn child of 20 or more weeks post fertilization (about 22 weeks on the typical 40-week gestation calendar.)
SB 378 – Allows pharmacists to give pneumonia and shingles vaccinations.
HB 61 – Gives DHH the right to halt the sales of so-called synthetic drugs and prohibits business owners convicted of selling synthetic marijuana, "bath salts," and "potpourri" from being able to get a permit to sell alcohol.
HB 952 – Seeks to maximize what funds are available by requiring DHH to track performance measures, promote best practices, create minimum delivery standards and more of mental and behavioral health services.
We tend to slight individuals with disabilities—and cut services to this population a lot—so I am very happy about this particular bill and was proud to support it.
SB 207 – Provides for review of health insurance rates, including increases, by the commissioner of insurance. This bill better prepares Louisiana for potential federal Health Care systems.
There were more than 2,000 bills filed this year; and there are notable bills that are too extensive to cover in a review such as this. I encourage you to visit the House website at www.legis.state.la.us to check out the bills of your particular interest.
When a bill is selected, you can view the amendments, votes, and history of each bill and the process it underwent.
Please feel free to call me to discuss any of these bills. I am happy to explain more about my position, issues to be addressed and ideas for such solutions.
We will soon begin our process of preparation for next year's session, so let us begin by working together! Communication is the key to our success; and your emails, calls and visits provide me with information and direction for my actions and decisions.
I have developed a process by which I decide on each bill:
Read the bill/digest in its entirety
Research the facts of the particular issue
Gather input from the District
Discuss the issues (pros and cons) with lobbyists, other representatives, and senators
Listen carefully to the debate
Cast my vote for the best possible outcome for our state and district according to the data
This, and only this process, allows me to be able to explain each and every vote.
I refuse to yield to the political pressure that often exists at the Capital. I am dedicated to being the voice of District 10 and to voting based on information—not politics.
I will soon be gathering interested leaders in our district to form regular discussions of important topics affecting our area. If you are interested in such a task, please call my office with your name and contact information.
Thank you for your support and input, and I look forward to hearing from you soon as we begin again.