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Virtue Its Own Self

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Virtue may be its own reward, but in Louisiana politics you get rewarded for siding with the governor. Old hands in the Legislature know that lesson well. Scores of rookie lawmakers will learn it this week as Gov. Bobby Jindal — a rookie governor who has wised up quickly to the ways of the Capitol — convenes a special session dedicated to spending a $1.1 billion state surplus while also cutting business taxes.

The state treasury's cup runneth over so much these days that Jindal and lawmakers find themselves in a unique and enviable position. The timing is lawmakers' reward for giving Jindal what he wanted (or most of what he wanted) in the ethics reform special session last month.

But voting with the governor on ethics reform merely explains why lawmakers find themselves in their current state of clover; it doesn't explain how they got there. To understand that, we need to remember three names: Katrina, Rita and Stelly.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated south Louisiana, but the ensuing influx of insurance checks and federal aid — the latter of which is only now beginning to show up in large quantities — created a post-storm boom that continues today and may well last several more years.

Stelly is the name of former state Rep. Vic Stelly of Lake Charles, who authored a controversial income-tax-for-sales-tax swap that voters approved in 2002. It was a long, tough fight, but the plan has worked almost exactly as its promoters promised — it has pegged state revenues to a progressive "growth" tax and reduced dependence on a regressive state sales tax on food, drugs and utilities.

Even without the Katrina/Rita boom, the Stelly Plan, as it is called, was starting to pay dividends in terms of predictable increases in state revenue. Those two factors combined have given the state successive windfalls, so much so that lawmakers and the new governor can significantly reduce taxes and spend more than a billion dollars in surplus funds this week and next.

Around the Capitol, they're actually using words like "fun" to describe this session. That word hasn't been used to describe a legislative session since the heady days of the oil boom in the 1970s.

It won't be all fun and games, however. Some elements of Jindal's agenda will generate contentious debate. Item No. 7 on the governor's official call would give a tax break to parents who send their kids to private or parochial schools or who home-school their children. The proposal quickly drew fire from teacher unions and other supporters of public education, including the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR).

Jindal's proposal would allow parents to deduct half of each child's tuition — up to $5,000 per child — which would average out to roughly $150 per kid in reduced state income taxes. Opponents of the idea say it will take money out of cash-starved public school systems. Supporters say parents who send their kids to private and parochial schools save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in public education costs. Total cost to the state is initially projected at $20 million — less than 1/10 of 1 percent of Jindal's proposed operating budget for next year — but opponents worry that it would set the stage for their greatest fear: a voucher system.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a similar bill last year, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The rhetoric will be fierce on this one, but the real fight will unfold in the courts.

Item No. 9 of Jindal's call may not generate as much controversy, but it could come back to haunt some of his GOP cohorts. It asks them to "legislate relative to changing the expenditure limit for fiscal year 2007-2008," which is code for busting the spending cap — something the Republican Caucus railed against last year, when Blanco proposed the same thing.

How will the GOP bloc respond this year?

Probably by remembering why they've been called back to Baton Rouge in the first place. Siding with the governor is, after all, a virtue its own self.

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