Financial Issues Linger In Louisiana Session’s Final Days

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Only days remain in Louisiana's lawmaking session, with legislators negotiating on a final budget deal, the House sitting on a construction financing plan and pieces of a criminal justice revamp starting to reach the governor's desk.

         The two-month legislative session must end by Thursday. As usual, some major items remain unsettled until the last days, including bills that enact the spending plans for the financial year that begins July 1.

         As a precaution, Gov. John Bel Edwards has called a special session to begin 30 minutes after the regular session ends Thursday, in case lawmakers haven't reached a budget agreement. Nearly all tax bills have been shelved, with the House and Senate unable to find consensus on anything to do with taxes paid or tax breaks.

         With a 62-42 vote, House lawmakers refused to support the Senate version of next year's nearly $29 billion state operating budget, sending negotiations over a final version behind closed doors, with the first meeting of House and Senate leaders Monday night. Legislative leaders don't, however, expect a special session to be needed to complete the work.

         Lawmakers spent much of Monday wrapping up their work on issues unrelated to the budget.

         The Senate haggled over how to rework laws governing the state dentistry board, after a critical audit. The House deviated into a discussion prompted by Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges about whether Louisiana should ban investments in countries that boycott Israel, a debate that grew heated after Democratic Rep. Barbara Norton chastised Hodges for spending too much time on federal issues, rather than Louisiana's finances.

         The bill with Hodges' pro-Israel language passed, but only after some tense exchanges.

         "I am sick of you coming to the microphone talking about other countries," Norton said. "Would you please stop bringing Israel and other countries here?"

         Hodges replied: "I'm doing this for the state of Louisiana. My constituents don't want Louisiana to invest in terrorism."

         The House spent part of the afternoon debating whether to rename a Louisiana boarding school for gifted students after a former state lawmaker, a proposal heavily resisted by school alumni that won narrow House backing.

         Edwards made strides in his effort to rewrite Louisiana's criminal justice laws, aimed at reducing incarceration rates and lessening the likelihood that people exiting prison will reoffend. Senators gave final passage to some of the measures, and most others are one step from his desk.

         On the state operating budget, House Democrats tried to win passage of the Senate version of the spending plans but couldn't rally support from Republicans.

         The House spending plan sought to leave $206 million unspent in the financial year that begins July 1, even though the state income forecast predicts the dollars will be available. Senators instead are proposing to spend all the money. House GOP leaders say they want to give the state a cushion against their expectations the forecast is too optimistic. Senators said leaving money on the table would cause damaging cuts. Republican House members also object to the Senate's inclusion of pay raises for 38,000 state workers and other changes.

         Senate President John Alario said the chamber is "very comfortable" with the spending plans it passed.

         "We think we were very responsible," the Republican leader from Westwego said. "Higher education won't suffer any cuts for the first time in nine or 10 years. We made sure the prisons didn't have to open their doors and let thousands of people out."

         The House also is trying to reach a compromise in a partisan disagreement that has bottled up a separate, must-pass financing bill to keep dollars flowing to state-funded construction projects. House Democrats, who are a minority in the chamber, stalled the construction bill as leverage to try to get more spending in the operating budget, more projects in the construction budget and more seats on the committees that craft the two bills.

         One budget bill received final passage Monday. The Senate sent to the governor a largely standstill $171 million judicial budget.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte


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