Louisiana Legislature's session charged with hot issues

By JOHN MAGINNIS and JEREMY ALFORD

BATON ROUGE — The regular session that convenes Monday will have no shortage of high-profile issues, beginning with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ambitious tax swap plan and his administration’s proposed budget, which is facing a $1.3 billion revenue shortfall in the next fiscal year.

While certainly enough to fill up the session’s two-month timeframe — adjournment is scheduled for June 6 — the tax plan and budget are not the only issues of substance that will be introduced and debated.

Changes to higher education and health care funding and even a new “I’m Cajun” state license plate are among the hundreds of bills that are being floated.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 668 bills filed in the House and 235 in the Senate. Of the 903 bills introduced for the first filing deadline, about 54 are constitutional amendments.

Another round of bills, at a clip of five per legislator, can still be introduced prior to April 17.

It is not too early, however, to read the lay of the land for some lawmakers.

“It’s going to be brutal,” said Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, a member of the budget-writing Finance Committee. “There’s not enough money to go around for all of the services we need.”

Jindal has argued that his plan to eliminate $3.6 billion in personal and corporate income taxes to make way for a new 6.25 percent state sales tax, among other changes, will help the Louisiana economy.

As things stand now, the plan is positioned to be the focal point of the session. Even if the plan is scaled back or replaced with another by the administration, the session will be heavy on tax chatter.

In addition to trading income taxes for more sales taxes, other parts of Jindal’s plan would increase taxes on cigarettes, reduce existing exemptions and offer tax rebates to the poor and retired, both of which would be vulnerable for greater tax liability under the proposed swap.

But it is not the only tax plan on the table.

A Closer Look

at the Alternatives

Siding with members of the conservative Budget Reform Coalition, Rep. Dee Richard of Thibodaux has complained that too few details were made available about the administration’s plan in recent weeks and most information was unreliable.

Jindal originally told lawmakers that the 4 percent state sales tax would only jump to 5.88 percent under his plan, but the figure was hiked March 28 as the various pieces of the governor’s legislative package were being introduced.

The decision to increase the state sales tax a second time came on the heels of a report from the Public Affairs Research Council, a Baton Rouge-based nonprofit policy watchdog, that found the tax plan, with a 5.88 percent sales tax, would result in a $500 million to $650 million shortfall.

Richard, who has no party affiliation, said he plans on filing a bill for the session that would repeal all tax exemptions that are not protected in the state constitution, increasing state tax revenues by $4 billion to $5 billion annually.

While the bill is still being drafted, Richard said it would be an avenue to effectively decrease income taxes.

“I know it’s a long shot and it will step on a lot of toes, but we need an alternative plan on the table,” he said. “We should at least look at that before altering sales taxes.”

Jindal has said all along that he wants his plan to be revenue neutral, meaning the state would not experience a drop or rise in tax revenues when the changes take effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Another alternative can be found with the Legislative Black Caucus, which wants to reduce income taxes, repeal corporate franchise taxes and increase taxes on tobacco products, among other mechanisms introduced by caucus chairwoman Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe.

Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, also has House Bills 271 and 640 to phase out personal and corporate income taxes over a 10-year period, while Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Franklinton, has introduced House Bills 338 and 394 to simply reduce personal and corporate income taxes.

A key player in the debates will be the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which is opposed to Jindal’s plan for the $500 million in additional liabilities it shifts to businesses.

Education Proposals Come Together

Out with the old GRAD Act, which allows universities to increase tuition based on performance, and in with a new outcomes-based system.

That is the war cry of the Legislature’s education chairmen heading into the spring session, although they face a steep hill to climb just in order to engage the issue.

Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, and House Chair Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, want to place colleges into five tiers where their graduation rates and performances can be compared to similar schools in other states.

Right now colleges receive about 60 percent of their funding through self-generated means, like tuition, and the rest from the state.

The latter category would be further split into two sub-categories under the Appel-Carter plan: 60 percent for baseline funding, with no accountability, and 40 percent that would be doled out based on outcomes.

Appel also wants a tuition freedom bill to be part of the overall package so university management boards can control tuition, rather than lawmakers.

But he wants the Legislature to pass the proposed accountability system before moving forward.

There are a number of versions being filed, but only Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, has the model called for by the Board of Regents in a resolution.

Leger said he is working closely with House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

“We’re only one of two states in the nation that require a vote of the Legislature to increase tuition,” Leger said.

Medicaid: To Take or Not to Take?

A February survey commissioned by the Louisiana State Medical Society shows that voters don’t agree with Jindal’s refusal to accept the Medicaid expansion included as part of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The poll shows 51 percent for state participation and 43 percent against it.

Despite increasing pressure on the issue from GOP governors elsewhere changing their positions to accept the expansion and, closer to home, from a public letter signed by a slate of special interest groups, Jindal has refused to expand Louisiana’s Medicaid program.

Several Democratic lawmakers have filed bills to force Jindal’s hand on the matter, but they have to overcome Republican opposition to Obama in the Legislature.

Despite support for the Medicaid expansion, the federal Affordable Care Act continues to be unpopular in Louisiana, according to the poll, with 54 percent disapproving to 41 percent approving.

Lawmakers will likewise continue to suggest alternatives to Jindal’s planned privatization of public hospitals around the state.

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