- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s budget worries have lessened as the state’s income has started to rebound from the recession, giving lawmakers more breathing room to bicker over other issues as they kick off their annual legislative session Monday.

The three-month regular session is a free-for-all, with legislators able to consider most any topic - except taxes. High-profile disputes already are burgeoning over whether to change educational standards, legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes and raise the minimum wage.

More than 1,500 bills have been proposed, ranging from new abortion restrictions and loosened gun laws to renewed debates over Medicaid expansion, teacher tenure and privatization efforts.

Bills to toughen regulation of payday loans, to cut the costs of the state’s free college tuition program and to bring back the electric chair because of difficulties buying lethal injection drugs have been proposed.

“One thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years is don’t try to predict what’s going to happen. You have 144 legislators, and it’s always unpredictable,” said House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s agenda appears light as he enters the final two years of his administration, focused mainly on workforce training efforts to fill petrochemical and manufacturing jobs his administration has drawn to Louisiana.

He’s also seeking to undermine a southeast Louisiana levee board’s lawsuit against the oil and gas industry, whose drilling activities are blamed for coastal erosion. And he’s backing changes to the civil litigation system sought by business groups.

Meanwhile, lawmakers want to revisit Jindal’s education policies from years past, which created a statewide voucher program and changed teacher evaluations and job protections. That is putting the Republican governor on defense, trying to protect his signature achievements and his legacy in office as he eyes a possible 2016 presidential campaign.

“We will absolutely make it a top priority to fight back any efforts to undo or repeal the reforms that we worked so hard to put in place,” Jindal said.

The legislative session opens Monday at noon. Jindal is scheduled to speak to a joint meeting of the House and Senate an hour later.

After years of grim budget debates over how deeply to cut higher education and health care, lawmakers are seeing brighter financial forecasts.

Jindal proposed a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 that would plug new dollars into education, health programs, state worker pay raises and other favored legislative causes.

That has quieted some criticism, but the governor again is running into disagreements with certain House Republicans who dislike the patchwork funding Jindal wants to use to balance the budget.

But even critics acknowledge they’ll have trouble trying to rework the spending plans.

“It’s going to be politically difficult to do anything about it, because you’re going to be faced with the option of cutting popular programs or other sources of revenue,” said Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, a vocal opponent of Jindal’s budgeting maneuvers.

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