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Budget the top worry as legislative session reaches midpoint

by Minden Press-Herald

BATON ROUGE — As Louisiana lawmakers reach the halfway mark of their regular session, new abortion restrictions are advancing, the governor’s main agenda items are questionable for passage and budget decisions are in limbo.

Only six bills — out of more than 1,600 filed for consideration — had received House and Senate passage and reached the governor’s desk by Friday. Those named a Calcasieu Parish highway after a slain state trooper and made largely technical changes to insurance laws.
The three-month session must end by June 6.

Finances Front and Center

Louisiana’s budget problems remain front and center in the session, with the state facing a $750 million shortfall in the financial year that begins July 1.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed cuts to the TOPS free college tuition program, safety net hospitals for the poor, prison spending and public education. He hopes those cuts won’t happen, because he’s planning a special session in June for lawmakers to consider tax changes that could bail out the budget.

The Democratic governor’s plan faces resistance from some Republican lawmakers, particularly in the House, where Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry is working on ways to rework the cuts to save the TOPS program, among other areas. It’s unclear, however, where Henry and lawmakers would come up with the money needed.

“We’re working on it as we speak,” said Henry, R-Metairie.

Edwards is skeptical: “You can move money around, but the cuts are going to be extremely painful.”

The Appropriations Committee will vote on its version of next year’s budget during the week of May 9, with the full House planning to debate it later that same week.

Governor’s Agenda in Trouble

Beyond the budget, Edwards’ two main policy proposals up for legislative consideration have advanced in the Senate but face difficult roads to final passage.

A bid to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage from the $7.25 per hour federal level to $8.50 narrowly won support from the Senate labor committee but awaits a decision from the Senate budget panel. Edwards’ push for an equal pay bill requiring private businesses to pay the same wages to men and women who perform the same work has gone farther, getting full Senate backing. But the governor is expected to have a tough time winning support in the House.

Business groups are working to kill both measures.

On education, Edwards’ proposals to put new limits on charter school expansion and on the state’s voucher program have stalled, unable to advance beyond committee debate so far.

What to do with Tops

Amid concerns about the ballooning cost of TOPS, senators agreed to restrict the program’s growth by locking in the TOPS payment rate at next year’s tuition level, unless lawmakers vote to raise payments.

The measure is advancing in the House. The same bill passed last year, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. Edwards supports the proposal.

Lawmakers also are weighing a contingency plan in case TOPS isn’t fully funded for the
2016-17 school year because of budget cuts. The Senate voted for a proposal that would allow every eligible student to at least get partial payment of tuition, with cuts divvied in equal share for every TOPS award. Edwards also backs this idea.

Abortion Restrictions

Several proposals aimed at putting new restrictions on abortion in Louisiana are advancing in the House. Lawmakers in the chamber voted to triple the wait time for women seeking an abortion to 72 hours, a change supported by the governor.

Scheduled for House floor debate next week are measures that would prohibit abortions performed because the fetus is determined to have a genetic abnormality and that would ban a commonly used second-trimester abortion procedure in most cases.

Edwards is pushing a bill that would strip taxpayer funding from Planned Parenthood, if its New Orleans clinic starts providing abortions. A federal judge already has blocked Louisiana’s attempt to cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood clinics.

Contentious Debates

While the abortion bills have received bipartisan support, other issues have been more contentious.

Legislative committees have stalled proposals aimed at protecting Confederate monuments around Louisiana from removal. The House and Senate have passed sharply diverging versions of legislation that would let Louisiana comply with the security measures of the federal REAL ID law, eight years after state lawmakers enacted a law banning compliance.

And while the Senate has agreed to expand Louisiana’s medical marijuana law to cover more diseases, the proposal faces an uncertain future in the House, facing opposition from local sheriffs and district attorneys.

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