House panel votes for 10% cut on consulting, professional contracts

BATON ROUGE (AP) — An effort to force a 10 percent cut on state agencies’ spending on consulting and professional services contracts received the support Tuesday of the House Appropriations Committee, without objection.
Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard, I-Thibodaux, has tried a similar bill for several years, only to see the idea killed in the Senate Finance Committee each time.
This year’s proposal has a new twist. It would move any state general fund money that is saved from the contract cuts into a special fund to help pay for public colleges, which have been hit by repeated budget cuts over the last six years.
“I’m tired of seeing us allowing schools to raise tuition to fund higher ed,” Richard said.
The bill (House Bill 142), championed by Treasurer John Kennedy, moves next to the full House, which agreed unanimously to Richard’s similar contract slashing proposal last year.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration opposes the measure.
Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols told committee members that the measure would hit services, like psychological counseling for abused children and disabled health care. It also could force the state to unnecessarily cut federal dollars, Nichols said.
“This approach does not lend itself to good government. This is an arbitrary approach,” she said.
Nichols said the Jindal administration has reduced consulting and professional services contracts by more than $1 billion since 2008. She said the contracts targeted by Richard’s bill total about $3 billion this year.
If enacted, the money spent on consulting and professional services contracts across state government in the upcoming 2014-15 year would have to be 10 percent less than what was spent this year. Higher education contracts, Medicaid contracts and certain contracts in the secretary of state’s office would be exempt.
It’s unclear how much money the bill could generate for colleges, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office, which analyzes the financial impact of proposals.

Senators refuse hospital soking exemption
Senators have refused to let hospitals discriminate against smokers in their hiring.
Sen. David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans, tried to exempt hospitals from a more than 20-year-old state law that bans employers from discriminating against smokers. The proposal (Senate Bill 492) would strip that protection for new hiring by hospitals, starting on Aug. 1.
But the Senate rejected the measure, voting 25-14 against it Tuesday.
Heitmeier said hospitals should be allowed to hire “smoke-free” workforces. He said it would be voluntary for hospitals.
“What this is leading to is saving lives. What this is leading to is preserving health care outcomes,” he said.
Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, said the measure would allow the punishment of people for a legal activity that they can do away from work.
Others questioned whether an employer could use the proposal to target a specific worker.

Cigarette littering bill advances
A proposal to levy fines against people who throw cigarettes out their car windows continues to speed to final legislative passage.
The bill (House Bill 1075) by Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, already has the backing of the House. On Tuesday, it received the unanimous support of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.
A first offense for the intentional littering would carry a $300 fine and eight hours of community service in a litter cleanup program. A second offense would cost $700 and require 16 hours of community service. On a third offense, violators could give up their driver’s licenses for a year, pay a $1,500 fine and have to perform 80 hours of litter cleanup time.
The proposal moves next to the full Senate for debate.
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Judges would have the ability to sentence someone to up to 99 years in prison for distributing heroin, if lawmakers agree to a proposal that received support Tuesday from a Senate judiciary committee.
The bill (Senate Bill 87) by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, would change the maximum sentence for heroin distribution or possession with the intent to distribute heroin from the current 50 years in state law to 99 years.
The minimum five-year prison sentence for a conviction on either charge wouldn’t change.
Claitor, a lawyer, said he thought the tougher sentences were in order. “The people who distribute heroin are distributing death sentences,” he said.
The judiciary committee backed the measure without objection, sending it to the Senate floor for debate.
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In other legislative action:
—A bid to ban anyone under the age of 18 in Louisiana from using a tanning bed is nearing final legislative passage after getting the support of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. The House-approved bill (House Bill 746) was backed Tuesday without objection. It heads next to the full Senate for debate. Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, described her bill as a cancer-prevention measure.

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