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Lawmakers pass slew of bills Monday

by Minden Press-Herald

Lauren Heffker and Hunter Lovell

LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE –The House on Monday unanimously approved Gov. John Bel Edwards’ $3.8 billion financing formula for public school funding, including $1,000 teacher pay raises and $500 staff pay raises as well as a $39 million block grant. 

Legislators also approved proposals to protect the state’s agricultural industries and expand Louisiana’s foster care system up to age 21.

The passage of the education plan signals the end of a standoff between the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, and House Republican leaders. The governor’s proposal was backed by BESE. 

“As we enter the final days of the legislative session, we have a chance to invest in education at every level, from early childhood all the way through higher education,” the governor said in a press release.

House Republicans initially questioned whether the state could afford the discretionary block grant for local school districts. But the Senate adopted BESE’s funding formula 37-1 last month, increasing pressure on the House to pass the governor’s proposal.

The bill’s passage means that the governor’s $30 billion state operating budget should now pass the House, as the block grant had been the key hurdle. 

The legislative session must end by June 6. 

Also on Monday, a proposal that would call for “truth in labeling” in food products cleared the House 58-29, sending the bill back to the Senate for review before it could head to the governor’s desk.

Sponsored by Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, the bill would prohibit manufacturers from labeling plant-based products using agricultural food standards.

Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, who presented the bill on the House floor, added an amendment that would allow terms like “riced cauliflower” to be printed on labels but still ban “cauliflower rice.”

“Call it what it is,” Stefanski said. “Don’t piggyback off of what our farmers in Louisiana have spent years and years marketing.”

The bill has been backed by state agricultural groups, including the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association, and by Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain.

Supporters said the bill would help protect the state’s agricultural industries. They also contended that consumers would be protected from labeling that is deceptive or misleading.

“This is a Louisiana bill, said Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Baton Rouge. “We’re heavily entrenched in agriculture. When we produce something in our state, there should be no confusion about what it is and who’s produced it.”

The proposal would limit fair competition to plant-based products, opponents argued, and the new labels would redirect consumer’s interest. 

“I don’t feel the consumers are confused,” said Rep. Beryl Amedée, R-Houma. “The bill is an overreach that will set Louisiana apart from the rest of the states. Grocers will suffer the effects as people have to go online to get these products.” 

Stefanski, however, contended that only the product manufacturers would be penalized for mislabeling products, not the grocers.

Rep. Walt Leger, a Democrat of New Orleans, argued that consumers would just go online to buy the outlawed products and that local businesses would suffer.

The legislature authorizes Strain, the agriculture commissioner, to distribute fines of up to $500 to violators for each mislabeling offense. Strain also would be allowed to request “injunctive relief” to prevent companies from selling misleading products in the state.

Strain has acknowledged the proposed legislation could bring litigation from food companies who might say the bill would violate their First Amendment rights.

The proposal has received bipartisan support and previously passed the Senate floor with unanimous support. 

A proposal that would expand the state’s foster care system also passed the House in an 87-1 vote and now heads to the governor’s desk. 

Sponsored by Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, the bill would extend Louisiana’s foster care program for young adults up to 21, instead of aging them out at 18. 

The proposal would cost the state $3 million, but the Edwards administration indicated it would support the bill as long as it was backed by the Legislature.

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