2014 session draws to a close

The Advocate

The 2014 session of the Louisiana Legislature, which ended Monday, did little things, but on the big issues, the three-month session mostly will be remembered for what didn’t happen.

Legislators didn’t toss out the controversial Common Core standards. They didn’t stop efforts to create a city of St. George in East Baton Rouge Parish. They didn’t ensure that medical marijuana can be dispensed by pharmacists. They didn’t resolve problems with the death penalty. They didn’t curtail the spiraling costs of TOPS. They didn’t increase minimum wage for the working poor.

“On defense, I think we did a good job in killing some bad bills,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday. He had outlined only a few goals at the beginning of the session and felt legislators answered that call.

“It has been a very productive session for the people of Louisiana,” he said.

Legislators passed bills that would allow courts to dismiss a levee board lawsuit that already has been filed against 97 oil and gas companies for environmental damage to the wetlands.

They clamped down harder on legal abortions by requiring the physicians who perform them to affiliate with hospitals. And lawmakers approved a balanced $24.6 billion state operating budget that provides for more funding for education, more money for people with disabilities and merit pay raises for state workers, Jindal said.

But many legislators worried that the budget relies on money that will not be available next year, setting up the possibility of being $1 billion short of the revenues needed for services for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2015.

“We will end up having mid-year budget cuts, and we did nothing in the long term because we have a billion-dollar problem next year,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, of Amite, who plans to run for governor next year.

“In many respects, it’s hard to feel good about what we have done in the session,” Edwards said.

“It was a disappointing session,” said Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a Baton Rouge-based policy research group focusing on state policies from the middle income and low perspective.

Jindal had an extremely light agenda, which opened to door for the legislators to push through policies important to them. “For the most part, they failed to take advantage of that opportunity,” Moller said.

“We kept the government running for another year, it looks like. It wasn’t a session that was loaded with a ton of big changes,” said state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

At adjournment, legislators had sent 884 bills to the governor.

Two key education issues of the session — Common Core and revamping the East Baton Rouge Parish school system — sparked lengthy committee hearings, heated arguments and close votes.

However, most of the bills to make changes in either area were killed.

A proposal to scrap Common Core in favor of new, Louisiana-produced academic standards was killed by the House Education Committee. The same panel killed legislation to scrap the tests linked to Common Core.

The defeats took much of the steam out of the anti-Common Core movement, and critics now hope that the governor will order an end to test plans.

A bid to overhaul the East Baton Rouge Parish School District mostly by giving school principals new authority breezed through the Senate but was crushed in the House.

The House twice rejected bills to trim the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board from 11 to nine members.

The Legislature approved a $3.6 billion spending plan for public schools, which means the state will have its first new funding formula since 2012.

It endorsed a plan to soften the impact of Common Core for an additional school year — 2015-16 — but Jindal may veto that measure.

Lawmakers also agreed on a compromise between Jindal, teachers unions and others on changes in how teachers appeal the threatened loss of tenure.

Another bill to ensure the privacy of student data — a rallying cry of Common Core opponents — won final approval.

Bills that would require the election of the state superintendent of education, mandate the teaching of sex education in public schools and make it easier to set up new school districts, such as in southeast Baton Rouge, all died.

Legislators couldn’t muster enough momentum to push through bills targeting efforts to incorporate a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish.

In the final days of the session, the House gave up on legislation that would have set a deadline for St. George supporters to collect signatures to get their incorporation attempt on a ballot. They face no deadline to get the 18,000 signatures they need.

A separate bill that would have allowed everyone in East Baton Rouge vote on the proposal — rather than just those voters who live in the proposed city’s boundaries — was abandoned earlier in the session.

Legislators talked at length on efforts to scale back the cost of TOPS. A bill backed by Senate Finance Chair Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, appeared to be gaining momentum, but Donahue ultimately dropped the effort, saying this session wasn’t the right year.

The goal was to increase standards for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, making it harder for students to qualify for the tuition assistance program, ultimately saving the state money.

The Legislature kept up its anti-abortion stance.

It approved legislation putting more restrictions on abortion clinic operations, including that providers have active privileges at a nearby hospital. Abortion rights activists said it would lead to clinic shutdowns.

Also passed was legislation requiring women to be informed of psychological and emotional impacts of abortions and stating that state policy is to keep pregnant women on life support to preserve the life of an unborn child.

For many retirees, the session was a victory.

After six years, more than 100,000 retired state employees, teachers, school employees and State Police got a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase. The pension check boost came with strings: new guidelines for granting them in the future.

The new guidelines divert more of the excess investment earnings of the retirement systems, used to fund COLAs, to reducing the $19 billion in pension systems’ long-term liabilities. That change is projected to save taxpayers billions over time as debt is eradicated sooner.

State Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, said arguments over levee and legacy lawsuits “set the tone for the session.” What is needed, Lambert said, is action on infrastructure needs in booming areas like Ascension Parish.

“I think there is becoming more interest in trying to do something for the Mississippi River bridge, maybe a new bridge in the St. Gabriel area, Plaquemine. That is something that is going to have to be done.”

The state’s capital improvements measure, House Bill 2, includes $1.65 million for a study next year on the feasibility of a new bridge and road improvements on the west side of the river.

As she waited for the elevator minutes after the House adjourned for likely the final time this year, state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, lamented that legislators have yet to do something about the tax breaks that cut into state revenue and limit dollars for public services. “We could’ve done more for the citizens,” she said.

The last day of session is similar to the last day of school before summer break. Spirits are high. Rubber bands flew around the chambers as legislators popped them at one another. Music played. At one point, the bouncy “Happy” boomed in the House chamber.

State Rep. Joe Harrison became the Cinderella story of the 2014 session. His efforts to create a state Department of Elderly Affairs threatened to turn to dust as the clock ticked down.

Harrison, R-Napoleonville, took a victory lap in the House chamber after his constitutional amendment to create the agency cleared the Legislature with less than five minutes left on the clock. Legislators chanted “Joe” as he slapped hands with his colleagues.

For Harrison, it’s been a two-year struggle to create the agency. Now the final decision rests with the state’s voters when they cast ballots in November.

House Bill 341 was the last bill to clear the House’s calendar before session ended at 6 p.m. Monday.

Dinah Landry, president of the Louisiana Council on Aging Directors Association, said Harrison was a great champion. “This means over 800,000 senior citizens will finally have the recognition they deserve,” she said. “We will have a voice.”

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