Minden Press-Herald

Wednesday
Oct 01st

Budget deal passes in final hours

Reynolds-Adley 2 041513

BATON ROUGE — Lawmakers agreed to a $25.4 billion budget compromise Thursday, in the final hours of a legislative session marked by new bipartisan alliances in the House and the meltdown of the governor's tax plans without a single vote on them.

After days of contentious closed-door meetings, a last-minute budget deal sailed through the Legislature with a 38-1 Senate vote and a 104-0 House vote, along with a package of bills to make the budget balance for the 2013-14 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Lawmakers then managed to wrap up their work an hour before their deadline to shut down the two-month session.

"I've never seen a process that worked like this. It was a process where House members came together with Senate members. We sat together, we worked together, we reached agreements unlike I've ever seen before," said Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, one of the longer-serving members of the Legislature.

The final deal was backed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose session was a striking contrast to a year earlier when he muscled through sweeping education changes that garnered national attention.

This year, Jindal shelved his central legislative goal on the opening day of the session, rather than risk an embarrassing defeat.

Jindal, in the middle of his second term, proposed a far-reaching tax rewrite that would have eliminated Louisiana's income taxes in exchange for higher state sales taxes charged across more items. The tax restructuring plan drew ire across the political spectrum, and was criticized by religious leaders, the state's leading business lobbying group and the governor's own hired economic consultants.

After scrapping his own plan, Jindal sought to keep alive the idea of phasing out Louisiana's income taxes.

But lawmakers in the House quickly killed that proposal because of concerns that such a change could devastate the state's budget, which they have struggled to balance through shortfalls during Jindal's years in office.

"Every year that I've been here, we swing for the fences," Jindal said. "I don't have any regrets for trying to get rid of the income tax."

Jindal blamed the failure on lawmakers having differing views about taxes. He said he believes the state's tax system could be a tool for economic development, but he said many lawmakers see it as a method to provide growing revenues for government.

The action early in the session left the governor with a limited legislative agenda.

Asked what the governor achieved, Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, replied: "Not much. I can't think of anything."

Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, said Jindal's tax proposal was so significant, it made sense he had little else to push in the session.

"He was taking on Goliath and trying to do it in a short amount of time. Once he set that aside, which I do think was the right move, there weren't a lot of other things, high-profile issues that it seemed like he was pushing, but that's understandable," Broadwater said.

After the failure of his tax plan, Jindal largely played defense, successfully killing attempts to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act and helping to defeat any efforts to raise taxes or make substantial rewrites to tax break programs.

"I think every session's got its challenges and its rewards. I think this was a very good session for the people of Louisiana," Jindal said. "Look, the education reforms continue again without delay, fully funded. We're not expanding Medicaid. We're not raising taxes. And we're making an increased investment in K-12 education."

Lawmakers discarded significant pieces of Jindal's budget proposal and instead worked on their own version of next year's spending plans, as House members continued to assert a new autonomy from the Jindal administration in a state where the governor traditionally holds significant sway over the Legislature.

An unusual alliance among conservative House Republicans, House Democrats and the Legislature's black caucus held throughout the budget negotiations and forced concessions from the Senate to get a spending plan passed.

"We showed our independence as a body and brought forth a truly bipartisan effort to create a sound and reasonable budget," House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, told the House.

The budget deal includes a $69 million increase for local school districts sought by House Democrats and limits on the patchwork financing used to pay for continuing programs to address concerns from House Republicans.

Also, Jindal has agreed to sign bills sought by conservative House lawmakers seeking to change the budget process in later years to limit the use of one-time sources of cash that they blame for continuing cycles of budget shortfalls.

In exchange, the governor's voucher program will be expanded next year to cover more students.

In other areas of debate, lawmakers refused to relinquish their control over college tuition rates and rejected attempts to put a cap on the tuition awards given to students through the free college program called TOPS.

A bid to open more of the governor's records to the public was defeated, after Jindal opposed it.

Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, said she was concerned about the number of new tax breaks approved by lawmakers.

"The end-result of that, it's a cause and effect, when you give it away, it hurts our poor people," she said. "We have a large, majority of our state that are poor. We bring businesses in and they don't create the jobs that they say or they bring people with them and then they create all the low level jobs for our people. That part bothers me."

Lawmakers delayed by a year Jindal's plan to shift rank-and-file workers to a 401(k)-style retirement plan, because of outstanding legal questions. And they added new restrictions on abortions and cell phone use while driving, while broadening gun rights in the state.

Doctors will be required to be present when the abortion pill is administered, rather than overseeing it through a web conference. Drivers won't be able to post to social media sites like Twitter and Instagram while driving.

The Legislature made it a misdemeanor crime to publish the names and addresses of people with concealed handgun permits, and they created a lifetime concealed weapons permit. But senators stalled House bills that sought to ban enforcement of certain types of federal restrictions on guns in Louisiana, raising constitutional concerns.

The nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana described the session as "much ado about very little."

The group wrote, "That's not to say that lawmakers didn't stay busy and some big issues weren't debated. But at the end of the day, not a lot has changed."

 

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