Jeremy Alford Thursday, January 23, 2014 0

The new year will feature old issues for the Louisiana Legislature, starting with a state budget that’s beginning to pull itself out of the muck, but may not be in the black for the 2014-15 cycle.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, is predicting a “significant budget shortfall” that could exceed $500 million. Lawmakers will need to figure out how best to address that anticipated budget gap after the 2014 session convenes March 10 and before it adjourns June 2.

As for what’s new, Schroder and others are confident that a few old budget tricks will no longer be available for use due to a 2013 law that changes the way the Revenue Estimating Conference recognizes money and a recent court ruling that cracked down on the use of statutorily-dedicated funds.

The usual intra-budget struggles can still be expected. For example, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said he’s ready to go to the mat for his office’s full $23 million marketing budget, which usually sees $8-14 million siphoned off by the administration for other budget needs.

Dardenne is likewise again getting behind legislation to create protection for tourism money or, more specifically, a fund to recruit major sporting events.

In the meantime, lawmakers need to devise a plan for spending the excess money collected by the state’s tax amnesty program and the surplus from the last fiscal year. Since the state Constitution prohibits surpluses from being used for operating expenses such as higher education, some are beginning to advocate on behalf of infrastructure projects like the one involving I-49 South.

“If I-49 South really is as important as we say, then all of or a substantial portion of this one-time budget surplus should be spent on it,” said Treasurer John Kennedy.

With a $12 billion infrastructure backlog, however, that could prove to be a controversial debate. Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, has raised the possibility of another TIMED program, but that will take an additional dedicated revenue source—that is, another tax, which is a non-starter at the Capitol these days.

Even before the American Tort Reform Assoc. declared Louisiana a “judicial hellhole” shortly before Christmas, lobbyists and lawmakers alike knew the 2014 session would serve as a battleground for yet another tort reform battle, with so-called oil and gas legacy cases leading the way.

“Gross abuses and questions of corruption have created an unpredictable lawsuit environment that threatens Louisiana’s long-term economic competitiveness and undermines the legitimacy of our entire legal system,” said Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

There will also be a drive to curb the ability of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East to file litigation, which it has already done against 97 oil and gas companies. It’ll be interesting to see whether the potential legislation will include any other levee districts or political subdivisions.

One fresh angle that could emerge in the 2014 regular session involves environmental justice and the package of bills being developed by Russel Honoré, the retired Army lieutenant general who gained fame during Hurricane Katrina. Among other things, he wants to revive the policy exchange over water management.

Good government lawmakers will want to usher in changes to campaign finance law and broker new limits on the ways in which Tulane scholarships can be awarded by legislators (if an internal fix isn’t implemented first).

Funding for higher education will be a retread; topics will include tuition freedom and spending on TOPS, two debates that could be overshadowed by the push to reverse or alter Common Core.

As for the customary bang from the right, Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, is once more considering legislation to allow concealed weapons to be brought into establishments like restaurants. A new twist to the gun debate could emerge with an economic incentive package for gun manufacturers in Louisiana.

To be certain, other sleeper issues will sneak up on us, and there will be more than one surprise from the 2014 regular session. But most of the issues will be old favorites — with the real question being whether they’re capable of producing different results.


Another Poll Puts Vitter Ahead

In polling both a large and small field of candidates for governor, a new statewide survey leaked to shows that U.S. Sen. David Vitter holds a small lead over New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.

The poll was conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research for Dardenne’s campaign with 800 likely voters. The margin of error is 3.5 percent.

In a three-way race with party ID provided, Vitter leads with 35 percent, followed by Landrieu at 29 percent and Dardenne at 22 percent.

In the event of an all-GOP runoff, the poll shows Vitter leading Dardenne, 40-36 percent.

The WPA poll was put in the field Nov. 12-14, just one week after the most recent Southern Media and Opinion Research poll was conducted. The SMOR poll had Vitter placing first with 30 percent in what was an independent poll, followed by Treasurer John Kennedy at 19 percent; Dardenne, 18 percent; state Rep. John Bel Edwards, 8 percent; and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, 2 percent.


Parenting Classes Considered

Should new parents be required by law to attend special classes before they’re permitted to raise their child? It’s an idea state Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, is seriously considering.

“Right now we’re looking at what other states have done and thinking about who should be included and what the classes should cover,” she told in an interview. “I recognize that not everyone knows what to do when they bring that child home. It could make a big difference, especially with a single parent.”

Barrow said she realizes she could face opposition from critics arguing the proposal infringes on basic rights. “In order to enter any profession you have to take a test. To get a driver’s license, you have to pass a test,” she added. “And when you think about it, this is about shaping another life. You need the right tools to do that.”

The issue, however, is far from settled and she said the idea is still in the conceptual stages.

Barrow is chairwoman of the Family Preservation Study Group, which is meeting at the State Capitol.


‘Racially-Polarized’ Electorate?

According to a new analysis from JMC Enterprises, Louisiana’s racial demography and electorate are undergoing a substantive change. Since 2009, there are 10,000 fewer white voters in Louisiana, while there are 17,000 more black voters and 9,000 more Asian and Hispanic voters.

“If these trends were to continue, the potential for a racially polarized electorate would increase, which in the near term benefits black Democrats and white Republicans,” said JMC president John Couvillon.

Couvillon said the current voter registration is 48 percent independent, 29.5 percent Democratic and 23 percent Republican.

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