The reshuffling of members and the chair of the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee has given a new life to the debate over union dues.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, told LaPolitics he’s returning this session with a bill to ban union contributions through payroll — a bill similar to the one that was passed in Wisconsin and caused an uproar.
Last month, Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, was appointed as chairman following the resignation of former chair Herbert Dixon. Williams was already a member of the committee, but no additional member has been added to replace Dixon.
Seabaugh said there could now be a slim advantage for proponents of the anti-dues legislation, which explains why some groups are said to be working on getting another member appointed.
The Louisiana Assoc. of Business and Industry has made the issue a top priority, noting in a policy paper that “a united business community will once again support legislation to prohibit the current practice of requiring taxpayers to support union activities at taxpayer expense.”
Seabaugh’s legislation would basically prohibit the collection and remittance of union dues by public bodies.
Like LABI, he said the public shouldn’t support a system whose funds go toward political activities. As an alternative, he’s proposed that unions could get their dues deducted directly from the bank accounts of members.
Opponents contend the law change would make it difficult to build up union memberships and would affect their freedom of political speech. They also claim that no additional public employees or resources are needed for the deductions.
Many have framed the debate as a “union-busting” attack on teachers unions.
Nevers Pushes Medicaid Expansion
Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, is teeing up two contentious issues for the session: a new oil and gas processing fee and another push to expand Medicaid.
Nevers said his constitutional amendment to create a hydrocarbon processing fee is still in the drafting stage, and that it will not mirror previous proposals by Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell and the late Gov. Dave Treen.
He’s considering including some credits for severance tax payments. He wants to raise $1 billion annually. He would dedicate the funding to a variety of needs, ranging from early childhood education and higher ed to infrastructure and retirement debt.
While there are prohibitions against revenue-raising measures starting in the Senate, Nevers said there are previous rulings that should pave the way for a constitutional amendment.
The Washington Parish senator is returning with another bill to expand Medicaid. He said it won’t be a carbon copy of his 2014 legislation. “The Indiana governor just signed on with an interesting plan,” he said. “I’m going to use that in this legislation.”
Last year, Nevers pushed a constitutional amendment that would have directed Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to accept participation in the federal program. The single committee hearing was packed with onlookers, including former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, who testified in favor.
Breaux argued then that President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act would help pay for a large share of the expansion.
Phillip Joffrion, state director for Americans for Prosperity, has said that Louisiana simply couldn’t afford the expansion, and that promises of the federal government picking up a big portion of the tab weren’t guaranteed.
A similar 2013 bill made it through the committee process, but failed on the Senate floor. Last year’s bill faced a higher bar, with a two-thirds majority needed in both houses and a vote of the people, since it was a constitutional amendment.
Reform Bills On Tap
Treasurer John Kennedy and Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, say they plan to return this session with a bill to reduce the number of consulting contracts being underwritten with state money.
After years of seeing their proposal fail, last year, the duo managed to get a version out of the Legislature that gave lawmakers oversight of certain contracts of $40,000 or more that relied on general fund or over-collections money.
But Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the legislation.
Kennedy wanted the money to go to higher education. He told LaPolitics that he’s partnering with another lawmaker this session to push a separate instrument to do the same. The bill would redirect certain federal grants away from NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, and give them to public universities instead.
Kennedy used after-school tutoring as an example of the sort of thing that would receive funding. “It will be more transparent and it’ll help out universities,” he said. “They would be in a better position to measure results.”
Richard, meanwhile, is sponsoring his own ambitious reform package that will feature several bills. Included is a proposal for automatic veto sessions, in which lawmakers would return for a day or two after a session ends to consider gubernatorial vetoes that passed with a majority vote.
He has another bill to take away the governor’s line-item veto authority, and also one to give the Legislature oversight of what the administration includes on its capital outlay agendas for approval by the Bond Commission.
He wants to eliminate funding for NGOs altogether, and change the way members of the budget-drafting Appropriations Committee are selected.
“I know they’re all a long shot,” Richard said. “But we’ve got to start somewhere.”
Cuts ‘Devastate’ Public Defender Boards
With $5.4 million in cuts slated on the state level, at least half the public defender board districts across Louisiana will be forced into offering reduced services as others facing insolvency are pushed closer to the brink.
“There are at least 20 going under next fiscal year,” said State Public Defender Jay Dixon. “There’s nothing we can do about it. Some will actually run out of money before September.”
George Steimel, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Assoc. of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said lawmakers are being made aware of the situation. The cuts could result in the immediate loss of public defenders and, due to the lack of proper defense, put defendants in the position of either serving longer without bail or having to plead guilty just to get released, he said.
The timing couldn’t be worse. State funding accounts for 40 percent of the overall budgets for public defender districts, with the rest coming from court costs, largely traffic violations. That has proven to be an inconsistent source; police have to write tickets for the funding to be there.
In addition, the growing trend of RICO cases in places like Baton Rouge and New Orleans is creating a need for private attorneys to be recruited to make sure defendants are represented individually. The money has to come from the public defender’s budget.
“This is going to be devastating, no matter what the cut is,” said Steimel. “We have a structural problem with how we fund Louisiana’s public defense delivery system.”
Even before the administration announced its cuts, 27 public defender districts were expected to end the current fiscal year operating in a deficit, using one-time money to bridge the gap. Another 12 were slated to become insolvent or dangerously close, according to a report from the Legislative Fiscal Office. If there were no cuts at all next fiscal year, that number would still double. “There will be about 26,” said Dixon.
Only nine districts were expected to finish the next fiscal year with enough accrued funds to post a surplus. But it’s unknown how the $5.4 million budget cut might affect that prediction.
“The defense system is in free fall,” said Dixon. “The fear is that some enterprising lawyer might go to federal court and say this is not a lack of funding issue, but rather an entire system going south. Then the feds step in and have to fix it. We know how that’ll turn out. They won’t be gentle.”
Lawmakers Look For Debt Plan
Several lawmakers have told LaPolitics that they’re hearing rumblings of a possible bond refinancing by the Jindal Administration to take advantage of low rates. The savings, among other pots of money and maneuvers, would then be used to put into play a debt defeasance plan.
It’s yet another idea being tossed around to address the state’s $1.6 billion budget shortfall for next fiscal year.
Whatever the means might be to pre-pay debt, sources say $173 million is how much the administration wants to cobble together for the debt defeasance plan.
Asked to confirm, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said, “The only way to approach this year’s budget is to put everything on the table.”
She added that her office is still developing the final budget proposal, and will present it to the Legislature on Feb. 27.
The administration used a similar tactic to help balance the budget last session, when $210 million from several different pools of cash was used to pre-pay debt, which in turn freed up the same amount of unrestricted general fund money to use on operating expenses.
Critics like Treasurer John Kennedy have long decried debt defeasance as an “accounting gimmick,” especially if the money isn’t used to completely retire debts.
Former Jindal Aide Eyeing House
The vacancy being left by House Natural Resources Chairman Gordie Dove, R-Houma, as he term limits out and prepares to run for Terrebonne Parish president has created a must-watch race that has already pulled in one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former top advisors.
Jerome Zeringue finished his final day as chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Jindal’s top coastal aide, Zeringue, a Republican, is expected to make a formal announcement soon for House District 52.
“I’m considering it,” he told LaPolitics.
Also looking at the seat are former state Rep. Damon Baldone and J.J. Buquet, who owns Buquet Distributing in Houma. Sources close to Buquet, a Republican, say he would have strong support from the business community; he’s has been recruited by members of the community to run. He has made no official announcement as of yet, but is expected to make a strong run.
Baldone, meanwhile, is no stranger to the Legislature. He would be running in a new district, but his name and brand are well known, thanks in no small part to his marketing efforts as an attorney.
Asked if he would run as a Democrat, Baldone played up his conservative leanings by saying he was, “100 percent pro-life,” and adding, “Whether I’m independent, a Democrat or a Republican, I stand for the same principles.”
For more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics.com or follow Jeremy Alford on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.