La. Legislative Session at Mid-point with Most Bills Still Hanging

May 30, 2007

Halfway through the legislative session, spending plans and tax cut proposals are at odds, insurance relief proposals in post-hurricane Louisiana are under negotiation, and most major bills still are awaiting compromises.

With one month down and one month to go, Gov. Kathleen Blanco has received only one bill from the Legislature for her signing – a tax cut for auto manufacturers, to benefit the General Motors plant in northwest Louisiana, according to Blanco’s spokeswoman.

Asked what lawmakers have done since starting the regular session April 30, Rep. Don Trahan replied, “Not much.” But the Lafayette Republican added that was normal in the state Capitol.

“We’re waiting on the budget before anything kicks into high gear,” Trahan said. “That’s fairly standard.”

Rep. John Alario, who as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee handles most budget bills, said he expected the House to debate the biggest money bill – the $29.6 billion budget proposal for the year that begins July 1 – on June 1. Proposals for spending $2.1 billion from the current and last fiscal years also were up for discussion in Alario’s committee.

The state has record amounts of money available for spending, and lawmakers disagree about how to use it, how much to use on one-time items like road repairs, how much to spend on new or expanded continuing programs, and how much to give back to taxpayers through tax cuts.

“This session we’ve probably seen everybody asking for everything. There’s a tax cut or tax credit for almost everything you can think of,” said Barry Erwin, head of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

Blanco’s pushing annual pay raises for public school teachers and school support workers, police and firefighters, prison guards, college faculty and state employees. She wants to add millions into education at all levels from preschool to college, to hire more than 1,000 state government employees and to pump new money into road construction.

She has recommended fewer than $150 million in tax cuts. But Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, head of the House Republican Caucus, said GOP lawmakers want $500 million in new tax breaks.

“This whole session is about all this money, and the biggest pot of money that most of them have probably ever seen is up for grabs, and I think that’s what everybody’s focused on,” Erwin said.

Consensus is building that some reversal of the “Stelly Plan” passed in 2002 will be passed, with the Senate approving a bill by Sen. Robert Adley to again allow taxpayers to deduct home mortgage interest, charitable contributions and some medical expenses from their income taxes – deductions wiped out by the tax swap that eliminated state sales tax on food and residential utilities in exchange for income tax increases for middle- and upper-class residents.

Alario said negotiations continue about how to balance tax breaks and spending proposals. He said this session has proved it’s easier to work on budget plans when the state’s got little money on the table, because then lawmakers can say “no” to spending suggestions.

“To me, it’s harder to run government when you have money,” Alario said.

While the budget debates continue, mainly behind the scenes, lawmakers are working on how to tweak Louisiana’s property insurance laws and what type of incentives to offer insurers to come to the hurricane-ravaged state.

The centerpiece of Blanco’s insurance package would use $100 million in state cash to give grants to insurance companies that agree to write new property insurance policies in Louisiana, particularly in south Louisiana. House members voted 100-1 for the bill, despite some lawmakers’ unease with the idea of offering taxpayer money to insurers. It awaits discussion in the Senate.

Meanwhile, after years of debating whether to outlaw cockfighting, the House and Senate are deadlocked over when to ban the rooster fights. The Senate says right now; the House wants to wait until next year.

Attempts to tweak the statewide building code, enacted after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, have stalled. A bill to outlaw the late-term abortion procedure called “partial-birth” abortion has moved through the House and heads to the Senate.

Lawmakers are trying to work out a compromise on a plan to chip away at the $14 billion backlog in road repair and construction projects at the state transportation department.
And no one’s decided whether the state will use some of its budget largesse to help fill a nearly $3 billion shortfall in the post-hurricane homeowner aid program called the Road Home.

For the midpoint of the session, Erwin said, “We’re pretty much where we usually are. When you’re about halfway through, you think you have a halfway good idea about what all’s going to happen, but you usually don’t.”

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