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Strange Brew

Even with healthy dashes of reform measures and local bills, this year's legislative mug will overflow with budgetary bitters

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If Louisiana's term-limit law doesn't go far enough for your political palate, Sen. Buddy Shaw has the concoction you want. Take one swig of the Shreveport Republican's proposed constitutional amendment and you'll confine lawmakers to three consecutive terms in the Legislature, regardless of the chamber to which they're elected.

  Right now, legislators can chamber-hop after three terms in the House or Senate, which some say constitutes an end-run around the spirit of term limits. Shaw's Senate Bill 59 would close the door on that possibility. If nothing else, his proposal sounds like a clarion call for radio talk show listeners who, in the wake of last year's legislative pay raise ruckus, can't wait to gnaw on lawmakers' hides some more.

  Shaw's term-limit measure is just one of many bills sure to generate lots of attention during the legislative session that begins next Monday (April 27). Another is House Bill 169 by Rep. Wayne Waddell, also a Republican from Shreveport, which would force Gov. Bobby Jindal to open more records in his office to the public. Rep. Neil Abramson, a New Orleans Democrat, is likewise targeting the Fourth Floor with a yet-to-be-filed bill that would require Jindal to disclose all the money donated to his campaign by political appointees.

  Lawmakers have a wide-open field to serve up additional political reforms this year, and that should generate just as much, if not more, excitement than Jindal's special session on ethics last year. So far the hottest item is a proposal by Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, to reform local school boards. Carter will be joined by the Council for A Better Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in support of bills to impose term limits and less pay on local school board members — and give more autonomy to local school superintendents.

  As far-reaching as those policy proposals may be, the top-shelf debate of the session will be the Jindal administration's $26.7 billion budget. It promises to be a source of intrigue, speculation and tension throughout the session, starting with a projected $1.3 billion shortfall. Time is short. The session's last call must come no later than 6 p.m. on June 25, days before the new budget takes effect on July 1.

  Practically everything that transpires between lawmakers, special interests and the executive branch will revolve around the budget negotiations. In fact, budget reductions are expected to reach into every nook and cranny of state government, ranging from a 56 percent decrease in Louisiana's arts programs to massive cuts in health care and higher education. Because virtually every constituency in the state is on the chopping block, and because Jindal has made the cuts a line in the dirt, he and his aides will be fighting a multi-tiered war on several fronts at once.

  For example, during last week's meetings of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, ripped into the administration for its inconsistent approach to budget drafting. Peterson says the administration wants to use temporary revenues to bankroll long-term programs in the Department of Health and Hospitals — a practice Jindal promised last year he would avoid. Peterson and others seem keen on making the governor keep his word. "We are not going to move forward in this way," she says. "We are going to be fiscally responsible."

  There's also a revolt afoot regarding the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Commissioner Mike Strain says the $15 million in cuts directed at his department will result in the elimination of more than 230 jobs, including 75 firefighters and more than 20 inspectors for seed, fertilizer and pesticides. In response, members of the Rural Caucus and Acadian Delegation, who collectively comprise more than 75 percent of the legislative membership, are vowing to stick together to block some of those proposed reductions. "When the caucuses stand together, not a single bill can pass without them," Strain says.

  The most painful cuts are slated for health care and education, both of which have impassioned constituencies ready to storm the state Capitol at a moment's notice. The reality of health care and higher education traditionally shouldering the most reductions transpires because half of the state's $9.7 billion general fund is dedicated to specific purposes other than health care and education. The other half, which supports colleges and hospitals, is perpetually the most vulnerable to cuts during tough times such as these.

  Jindal seems poised to change that paradigm, and that's worth toasting. He has thrown his support behind a set of proposed constitutional amendments that would allow further reductions in the "nondiscretionary" portion of the general fund. "The current system of state government is too inefficient in too many areas," Jindal says. "It spends too much for too little result. We are in desperate need of common-sense reforms that will allow us to control spending and make government more efficient."

  While that sounds like a needed change, there is a downside: If approved by lawmakers and voters, the constitutional amendments won't take effect until the 2010-11 fiscal year. In the meantime, lawmakers are looking for ways to save health care and education now. Many favor raiding two sacred-cow funds: the Rainy Day Fund, which has $775 million, and a $775 million fund set aside to lure large-scale economic development projects.

  Jindal cautions that future fiscal years are already forecast to be worse, and the money Louisiana will sip from the federal stimulus cup will run out in two years. Meanwhile, the governor wants to use the state's economic development project fund on a few deals this year, including $50 million to help swing the sale of the Pilgrim's Pride chicken-processing plant in Farmerville.

  For the governor, it's going to be a scrappy session. While the federal stimulus money comes at an opportune time, Jindal's decision to refuse parts of the money (particularly new unemployment compensation benefits) could pit Democratic lawmakers against business interests and the governor. So far, the U.S. Department of Labor is standing with Democratic lawmakers, who want to accept the stimulus cash by passing unemployment compensation laws that they intend to repeal in two years. "Jindal could be on the wrong side of this one," says Rodney Grunes, chairman of the political science department at Centenary College in Shreveport.

  Jindal also will be battling Republicans to control the pour of budgetary brew. Some GOP leges will push for tax breaks and new incentives during a cash-strapped year. Jindal has stood firm against tax increases, but he hasn't indicated how he will handle incentives and breaks, which would likely create more debt for the state.

  Some tax incentives and breaks could mark Louisiana's official start to being green. Among the proposals are tax credits for businesses to incorporate wind or solar energy (House Bill 32), programs for compressed natural gas vehicles (House Bill 110), and incentives for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by later using the CO2 in oil exploration (Senate Bill 10).

  Like everything else filed for debate, these bills will be competing for attention against hundreds if not thousands of other "worthy" measures. Such bills include proposals to increase penalties against drunk drivers and sex offenders, a renewed push to increase the homestead exemptions and create tax-exempt holidays, and a slew of constitutional measures, including one that could lead to a full-fledged constitutional convention.

  There's just no telling what you're going to get when our legislative mixologists start pouring their own call brands. Some of the bills up for discussion will make sense (House Bill 378 by Rep. Charmaine Marchand Stiaes, D-New Orleans, suspends foreclosure proceedings during natural disasters); others won't (House Bill 137 by Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, expands drug testing for adult recipients of public assistance). A few seem tailor-made for grabbing headlines (House Bill 383 by Rep. Walker Hines, D-New Orleans, requires neglectful parents to perform community service, and House Bill 400 by Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, forces physical activity upon students).

  From reforming parish school boards and managing a $1.3 billion deficit to increasing applications for solar power and catching potheads on welfare, the session that starts next week promises to produce a strange brew indeed. Of course, that only means that the hangover (read: the next fiscal year) could be more painful than ever.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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