- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - An effort to rebalance this year’s $25 billion budget, to fill $75 million in gaps in education and prison programs, began advancing Tuesday in the Louisiana Legislature.

The House Appropriations Committee agreed without objection to the budget-balancing proposal (House Bill 1094), sending it to the full House for debate with fewer than two weeks remaining in the legislative session.

The bill would direct another $55.7 million to the state’s public school funding formula, $10.6 million to the state’s free college tuition program called TOPS and $8.6 million to local sheriffs for housing state prisoners in their jails in the 2013-14 fiscal year that ends June 30.


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To make the numbers balance, the measure would plug the remaining proceeds of a tax amnesty program into the state’s Medicaid program and free up $61 million in state general fund dollars. Those dollars would be combined with other unspent money, including $8 million from Louisiana’s voucher program, to fill the budget holes.

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A bill to close loopholes in Louisiana’s ban on cockfighting and put the law in line with other state laws that prohibit dogfighting received final legislative passage Tuesday with a 34-4 vote of the Senate.

The measure (Senate Bill 523) by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, broadens the definition of “chicken” in the current law to include roosters, game fowl and other birds.

It also criminalizes the possession, manufacturing, buying and selling of spurs, gaffs and knives if there is evidence the paraphernalia is being used to fight chickens. And it toughens the penalties for anyone convicted of cockfighting.

Morrell’s bill heads to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk.

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Lawmakers have passed a measure that would make using handheld cellphones while driving in certain school zones unlawful.

The House voted 89-10 Tuesday to give final passage to the measure (House Bill 370) by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Baton Rouge, adopting Senate changes that lessened its impact.

The measure calls for penalties for drivers who use handheld cellphones in school zones that chose to post a sign saying it is prohibited. Originally, the ban would have been statewide, but senators amended it to make it optional for school districts to avoid a cost to the state.

“I do have concerns…that there’s going to be confusion,” said Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans.

Thompson said the measure would not have passed the Senate floor without the amendment and that it will still help make school zones safer for children.

“It’s a great step forward,” Thompson said.

The bill goes next to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk for consideration.

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Senators rejected a measure Tuesday that would have barred discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, age, sex or disability by adding the characteristics to current anti-discrimination statutes.

A Senate judiciary committee voted 4-1 against the proposal by New Orleans Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat, after hearing only from supporters of the bill who said discrimination is still a reality for many.

Stephanie Patrick, director of policy and planning for the Advocacy Center, said she helped someone with a mental disability who repeatedly met discrimination in the workforce. The center serves people with disabilities and senior citizens.

“This is real and it is still happening today,” Patrick said.

Kristen Becker, a standup comedian from Shreveport who is gay, said it was unjust to make Louisianians feel unwelcome in their home state because of who they love.

However, members of the Senate committee were not convinced, doubting a person could prove discrimination based on added characteristics and worrying the added protection for gays would violate freedom of religion.

Opposition came from business and religious groups, but they did not speak at the hearing. Similar measures had been defeated in House committees earlier this session.

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In other legislative action:

-Veterans will pay less for concealed handgun permits in Louisiana. The House gave final passage Tuesday to a measure by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, that drops the annual fee for a permit from $25 to $12.50 for active, reserve and veterans of the U.S. military. It also cuts the fee for lifetime concealed handgun permits, from prepaying 20 years of fees to instead prepaying 10 years of the annual fee. The bill moves to the governor’s desk.

-The full Legislature has agreed to name the town of Sunset as the “Rubboard Capital of the World,” to celebrate the washboard-type instrument used in zydeco music. The measure (Senate Concurrent Resolution 81) by Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, was given final passage with a unanimous vote of the Senate.

-All of Louisiana’s parishes and municipalities will be able to create gun buyback programs that allow people to exchange weapons for gift certificates or other compensation, under a bill (House Bill 272) that received final passage Tuesday with a 94-0 House vote. New Orleans is the only city in Louisiana authorized to hold buyback programs, though Baton Rouge has done one for several years in which people turn over weapons in exchange for gas cards.

-Louisiana will issue tax refunds via paper check, rather than debit card, if taxpayers don’t say how they want the refunds. The measure (House Bill 436) by Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, will end the revenue department’s practice of giving prepaid debit cards to people who don’t spell out that they want to receive their tax refunds through direct deposit or check. The bill received final legislative approval with unanimous support from the Senate

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QUOTE:

“I’m not used to being up at 9 a.m., and usually my audience is drunk.”

—Kristen Becker, a standup comic from Shreveport, joking to a Senate judiciary committee before she began her testimony about a bill that she supported.

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Online:

Louisiana Legislature: www.legis.la.gov

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