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Grand LA budget bargain seems increasingly elusive

As the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature continues, it seems more and more likely that worlds will collide concerning resolution of the fiscal year 2016 budget.

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee passed SB 177 by Sen. Robert Adley, which would put forth a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the state’s inventory tax credit by eliminating inventory’s taxation, as a result raising over $500 million that could go to reducing a shortfall in the $1.6 billion range. The problem is that this would cost local governments almost 80 percent of that and business the remainder, although Adley assured local governments that some way would be concocted to allow them to recapture that revenue but provided no details.

Gov. Bobby Jindal supports eliminating the credit that is refundable, but not the portion that is used to offset corporate income and franchise taxes. However, as it is a constitutional amendment, he has no direct impact on the bill’s passage, which requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber. He has promised retaliation on a strategy of suspending tax exemptions, which the Legislature can do by resolutions that he can’t veto by a two-thirds vote, by vetoing a budget that relies on them, but they can override that by a two-thirds vote.


Beneficial TOPS reform bill may not hurdle veto threat

Turns out that state Sens. Jack Donahue and Conrad Appel are cleverer than they look. The question is whether that’s enough to get Taylor Opportunity Program for Students reform past a doubting Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Donahue is the main author, with Appel, of SB 48, which would lock in TOPS awards at their academic year 2017 levels, after which the Legislature would have to affirm increases in that rate. This means that, under the 10 percent maximum now allowed annual increase in tuition for schools that meet performance targets and/or any future removal of legislative control over the raising of tuition beyond this level, tuition levels at schools can increase without the award level following suit, as now is the law. This effectively would cap TOPS costs at the level of next year’s costs for each school or substitute (such as a weighted average for nonpublic schools) that would vary only by the mix of students attending what schools.

Reading the bill in isolation, it would appear that instead of this outcome, it would create a gap between award and tuition that the student would have to cover through other means. But the interpretation above holds because of the way the law is written and the promulgated code associated with it. R.S. 17:3048.1(N) states that if insufficient money is present to fund all awards that then the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission would establish criteria that decided who got awards, subject to the statute’s mandating usage of scores on the American College Test and expected family contribution (a federal government formula computed through the standards Free Application for Federal Student Aid process) as part of that. In other words, eligible applicants either get or do not get an award if not enough money is appropriated.


Exigency scare tactic should not distract in budgeting

Even as the announcement serves as a scare tactic, the possibility that the Louisiana State University System and perhaps others higher education systems or institutions in the state could declare partial or entire financial exigency could pave the way to helpful changes – or simply make the problem worse.

LSU System Pres. and LSU Chancellor F. King Alexander announced that the system’s Baton Rouge campus was putting together plans for financial exigency, a condition that allows an institution greater latitude in making decisions about programs or personnel as a result of adverse financial conditions. By way of example, the LSU System receives such authorization from its Board of Supervisors for any of the entire system, institutions within it, or academic units within an institution, after an institution’s leader consults with the faculty and petitions. This allows, for example, for a school to furlough, lay off, or even terminate contracts with faculty members prior to these ending or in the case of tenured individuals to bypass other for-cause requirements for their discharge.

Of course, Alexander did not have to tell the world that he had asked the institution to begin drawing up such plans, so that served as a public relations move more than anything else (affirming this primarily was a scare tactic by adding “We don't say that to scare people”). He piled on with the imaginary terrors by stating “You'll never get any more faculty” if declaring exigency and lamenting that, at budgeted levels without changes in current revenue-raising capacity for the state of which the Legislature is trying to alter, the taxpayer portion per LSU undergraduate student would drop to $660.


Anti-Common Core side showing closed-mindedness

Maybe it’s that state Rep. Brett Geymann doesn’t get around much. Or perhaps he’s just incredibly thin-skinned. Regardless, if the attitude he displays regarding arguments against opposition to the Common Core State Standards Initiative stands in for the prevalent thinking of those agreeing with him on that issue, this discredits altogether opposition to Common Core.

Earlier this week, Geymann tried a parliamentary maneuver that would have sent a bill of his that would negate the use of CCSSI standards in Louisiana schools directly to the House floor. Common Core is a compendium of learning objectives put together by state officials and educators the outcomes of which are designed to be measurable by a common instrument. Critics maintain that specification of standards must lead to standardized content out of control of states, that the standards are too hard or too lenient, and that these are driven by conspiratorial forces.

The House rebuffed his attempt, which Geymann explained was motivated by a recent lobbying effort by a pro-Common Core group that placed pink stuffed unicorn toys on legislators’ desks with the tagged inscription “Unicorns are not real. And neither are most of the things you’ve heard about Common Core.” This greatly perturbed Geymann, who emoted through a press release that “This is the most distasteful thing I have seen in my entire career as a public servant.” He also clarified by alleging that the interest group stunt that was “mocking” opponents thusly made parents think the usual process of going through the relevant committee before floor consideration was rigged against them, and hence the extraordinary step that until then never had been taken under the current Constitution of trying to bypass a committee.


Intolerance marks arguments against religious freedom

The confusion and arrogance expressed in state Rep. Walt Leger’s recent opinion piece in the New Orleans Times-Picayune against HB 707, which would prohibit state government coercion against service deliverers who make decisions to engage in commerce on the basis of their views about marriage, illustrate the bill’s necessity.

His error begins at the most fundamental level by conjuring an equivalency between protections granted in the U.S. Constitution based upon a person’s immutable characteristics, such as race and sex, and a person’s behavior, such as expressions of homosexuality that would include the notion that a marriage between people of the same sex is blessed by God. The Constitution protects people for what they are, not how they choose to behave, with the two exceptions of behavior extending from political belief and religious belief – the latter exactly the point of the bill.

Confusion reigns elsewhere in Leger’s screed. He claims that existing law would provide adequate protection against discrimination against religious belief, but does not seem to understand that the government actions the bill seeks to enjoin as a result of exercise of religion concern matters of state government regulation not otherwise addressed. He also inaccurately distorts the permitted invocation of conscience as a cause for concern far beyond its extremely narrow zone of views on marriage.


Jindal should lead on state divestment in Iran issue

If Gov. Bobby Jindal wishes to continue to put himself on a path to a run for the White House in 2016 and to promote good state policy simultaneously, there’s something he can get behind in the area of foreign policy during the Louisiana Legislature’s current regular session that’s good for both the state and country.

Just as the prefiling period for session bills came to an end, Pres. Barack Obama declared victory in getting any deal negotiated between the United States and several other prominent states and Iran described as a means by which to constrain its nuclear ambitions. Great debate has ensued, with almost all Republican, but also including some Democrat, national lawmakers noting the framework’s inability to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weaponry, which stays consistent with Obama’s overall foreign policy thinking.

As a result, some states’ legislatures have decided to pursue passing laws akin to those already existing in several other states that require divestment in any enterprise that deals with Iran and/or barring these from state contracts. Even if the federal government lifted sanctions, it can do nothing constitutionally about states’ decisions on where to invest their money and with whom to do business.


Legislators must stop wasteful meeting expenses

Q: How do you know when a lawyer is lying?

A: His lips are moving.

While there are many really, really bad lawyer jokes out there, that could be the worst of them. Unfortunately, one member of the Louisiana bar appears to be living up to that stereotype as taxpayers get fleeced for some high living off the hog by the Louisiana State Law Institute, an appendage of the Legislature that has acted as the official law revision commission, law reform agency, and legal research agency of Louisiana since the 1930s.

I write “appears” stereotypical because it’s possible the guy in question, the longtime executive director of the organization William Crawford, simply may have horrendous research skills – although that seems highly doubtful given his considerable academic accomplishments (having been a law professor at Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert School of Law for nearly half a century). That’s because he was asked by a Baton Rouge Advocate reporter about the Institute’s penchant for having meetings in New Orleans, even though it is headquartered at LSU, which have cost more than $500,000 over the past three years; specifically, why didn’t meetings of its council, which has over 100 members, occur where it is housed? About a third of its members live in the greater New Orleans area, while almost as many live in the Baton Rouge area.


You want directions on LA's budget? Just click here

So legislators think Gov. Bobby Jindal will provide minimal direction this session as the state faces budgetary difficulty. That’s all right, I’ll take up the slack.

Jindal presented a budget as by the Constitution, but it met with criticism in certain areas, some portion of it rightly so. The biggest of these were that it cut funding for higher education $221 million and for health care $150 million even as rolling back tax credit rebates were to bring in $526 million, although $377 million of that came in the form of the inventory tax credit would cause in the aggregate businesses’ tax to rise by that amount, because the tax is levied at the local level which the state could not change. To reduce the hit to higher education perhaps by half, the Jindal Administration suggested a convoluted plan to raise cigarette taxes, to increase college fees, then to pass through the proceeds of the tax to offset the fee. Jindal has said he will veto any tax increase that does not have an offset elsewhere. Also of some concern is that the partner entities operating the state charity hospitals want additional funding to continue providing services above and beyond their contractual obligations, estimated at $142 million.

What is presented here uses the executive budget as a baseline, as much of it presents a good framework. It then reshapes it so some degree, taking bills already introduced and some data associated with them, trying to address the valid concerns about workability and desirability of the policy options attached to it. Just as the present budget requires a slew of legal changes that eliminate the tax credit refunds, some also will be needed under this plan.


Girls in tuxedos sought in schools, not religious belief

You may be forgiven for wondering whether the world has turned upside down upon learning in north Louisiana schools it seems more important that girls wear tuxedos at proms than supporting school leaders who give witness to values that build character and respect the dignity of all people.

In Monroe, controversy ensued when several Carroll High School girls were told they couldn’t attend prom in that traditionally male attire. Jurisprudence is that schools have wide latitude in placing restrictions on free expression, in that these are reasonable if connected to the educational mission of the school. Certainly disruption of something such as a sponsored school event qualifies, given the hostility that could ensue from attendees interpreting this attire as a symbol of behavior they see offensive that they are forced to condone, and that many school teachers that would chaperone the event reputedly said they would not do so if that were allowed to happen. This got up the dander of at least one pro-homosexual interest group that called the refusal “harmful” and would “censor” the aggrieved girls’ “core identity.”

But children are children and even at that age many engage in more than enough buffoonery, including cross-dressing at formal functions in order, if nothing else, to assert their independence and to inject a little levity onto that experience in their lives, which within a relatively short time will seem to all but a handful insignificant. That the district has allowed this at other times, without riots breaking out even if previous tuxedoed lasses may have desired to signal that they prefer to behave homosexually, undercut any argument that the event would end badly. The Monroe City School District properly will allow girls to appear dressed as penguins at the soiree.


Jindal past, present, future on display in swan song

Perhaps a little less valedictory but mostly predictably, Gov. Bobby Jindal gave his swan song State of the State address to open the 2015 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature, determined to go out in his own way, in his own time, both putting a period on his attempted transformation of the state and starting a new chapter outside of it.

Of his eight such speeches, it was among the most compact, and certainly the most thematic, bringing out three major items tied by their impact on his legacy and how that will become interpreted in the future. After a review of the past that mentioned genuine accomplishments in the areas of ethics reform, expanding choice that lead to improvement in education, streamlining and improving government’s role in healthcare delivery for the indigent, and in overseeing general economic growth statewide with the implications that right-sizing government and holding the line of taxes did the trick, he promised resolution of a creaky budget by asking for repeal of and heaping blame onto “corporate welfare,” to eject the Common Core State Standards Initiative from the state, and to support the effort to protect constitutionally-guaranteed religious freedom by prohibiting state coercion that would force service providers to support behavior relative to marriage that they see as immoral.

The first of these Jindal and all other policy-makers have known for months would be forced upon them, but, even as his no tax increase pledge remained familiar, novel to his response was the identification of “wasteful spending” by government courtesy of programs to give generous tax breaks beyond tax liability. He essentially said nothing about this in the previous seven years, leading astute observers to wonder whether past omission of excising these, as he indicated was his preferred solution to ensure adequate funding to government this year, came from an oversight on his part. Many of these were as wasteful then as they are now, and if this now is a big deal, why not then? This comes across more as a defensive measure to avoid an unpleasantry than anything else.