- Associated Press - Saturday, April 19, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Efforts to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage and let school teachers carry guns to work appear jettisoned for the legislative session. Tougher restrictions on the payday lending industry and efforts to lessen marijuana penalties are on life support. And none of the major budget decisions have been settled.

The three-month legislative session has reached its halfway point with much of the controversy still ahead, as lawmakers took a long Easter break before settling in for the second-half stretch. Their work must end by June 2.

A handful of noncontroversial bills have reached Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk, including measures to reauthorize the corrections department and to toughen explosives regulations after millions of pounds of improperly-stored military propellant was discovered at Camp Minden.

Lawmakers are on track with previous sessions, where the biggest issues often get negotiated until the final days and budget decisions can get wrapped up in the last few hours.

“At the halfway point, I think we’re moving along very well,” said House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

More than 1,900 bills were filed by lawmakers for consideration in the free-for-all session, in which legislators can tackle nearly any topic of interest - except taxes.

Proposals to ban anyone under the age of 18 in Louisiana from using tanning beds and from buying electronic cigarettes are speeding to final passage, while a bid to loosen helmet restrictions for motorcyclists quickly stalled.

Measures to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes await their first hearing, and the House on Monday debates whether to name the Bible as Louisiana’s official state book.

New abortion restrictions that would require doctors performing the procedure to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital easily cleared the House, despite criticism they would shut down three of Louisiana’s five abortion clinics. The bill awaits debate in the Senate.

Before they can wrap up their work, lawmakers must rebalance this year’s budget and craft a spending plan for the 2014-15 fiscal year that begins July 1. That is proving tricky as the state continues to face financial gaps and limited revenue growth.

“We’re still struggling. We’re not over the hump yet,” said Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Jindal proposed a budget that would plug new dollars into education, health programs and state worker pay raises. He called it balanced and responsible, but House lawmakers say it’s built on shaky financing and packed with new spending they’re not sure the state can afford.

The Appropriations Committee intends to draw up its version of the budget plans by the end of the month, with full House debate set for May 8.

Looming over the discussion are worries about a House financial analysis that shows Jindal’s budget is balanced using $968 million in surplus, trust fund, tax amnesty and other patchwork dollars that won’t reappear a year later.

As a possible 2016 presidential campaign nears, the Republican governor’s agenda for the session is a light one, 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. Jindal calls it a “frivolous lawsuit.”

The levee board bills have been advancing in the Senate, while the workforce training money is tied up in the House amid the larger budget debate.

One of the most heated issues of the session involves disputes over whether Louisiana should continue its phase-in of the Common Core education standards and the standardized testing associated with them.

After months of dodging the issue, Jindal announced a few weeks ago that he wants the state to develop its own education standards and tests. The stance puts him at odds with his hand-picked education superintendent, John White, and the business community.

The House Education Committee rejected the anti-Common Core bills backed by Jindal, but that isn’t expected to end debates over education standards.

“I think they’re going to linger until the end of session,” Kleckley said.

Meanwhile, Democrats have hit strong resistance in efforts to raise the minimum wage, lessen jail time for some crimes and enact non-discrimination laws for people who are gay.

They are expected to get their first hearing next week on a top agenda item, seeking to expand the Medicaid program as allowed under President Barack Obama’s health care law, but the proposal is considered a long-shot at best. Jindal opposes the idea.



Louisiana Legislature: www.legis.la.gov

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