- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Lawmakers, still bristling from a bitter special session that didn’t address all the state’s financial problems, return Monday to the Louisiana Capitol to dive into a three-month regular legislative session.

They’ll have to continue grappling with the threat of budget cuts while also adding politically charged debates about Louisiana’s TOPS free college tuition program, abortion, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration and Confederate monuments.

The session opens Monday at noon and must end by June 6. More than 1,200 bills have been filed for consideration.

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BUDGET WOES

Though the House and Senate voted for more than $1 billion in increased taxes for next year’s budget, they still didn’t come up with enough money in the special session to fill all gaps.

Holes up to $50 million remain this fiscal year. But the larger problem centers on the budget year that begins July 1, when Gov. John Bel Edwards and Senate leaders say they are as much as $800 million short to continue all current programs and services.

“That number is big and so it’s going to be very difficult,” the Democratic governor said.

That leaves health care for the poor and disabled, colleges and other government programs at risk of steep reductions. Grim budget scenarios will be debated, as the majority Republican House and Senate work to craft next year’s spending plans with the money available.

“We would certainly rely on agencies to prioritize what will be available and how they will handle it,” said House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.

Taxes can’t be considered in the regular session. Talk lingers of a second special session.

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TWEAKING TOPS

Louisiana’s popular free college tuition program, called TOPS, is targeted for possible changes as its costs have skyrocketed and the state’s budget problems have worsened. Lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would tweak TOPS.

Proposals would boost the TOPS eligibility requirements, make students repay the state if they lose the award or don’t graduate, or lessen what’s covered in tuition costs. One legislator is proposing to only give TOPS awards to students in high-demand degree programs.

Even if legislators don’t make changes, thousands of fewer students could receive free tuition if lawmakers can’t fully fund the program. TOPS is estimated to need $294 million to pay for all the eligible recipients next year.

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ABORTION RESTRICTIONS

Republican lawmakers are taking aim at Planned Parenthood, with bills seeking to block public funding for the organization and prohibit the sale or transfer of fetal tissue. One proposal would require the burial or cremation of fetal remains after an abortion.

Louisiana is embroiled in a lawsuit over former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s attempt to cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood clinics. A federal judge blocked the effort. The state is appealing. The defunding move came after videos were released by an anti-abortion group claiming Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetal tissue. The organization denied the allegation.

Meanwhile, two north Louisiana lawmakers are seeking new abortion restrictions. Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, wants to extend the waiting period for an abortion from 24 hours to 72 hours. Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, wants to toughen qualifications for doctors who perform the procedure.

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CONTENTIOUS DEBATES

Beyond abortion, lawmakers are stepping into other hot-button areas.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, wants to ban state funding from local governments that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, will try to enact legal protections for ministers and employees of religious organizations who oppose same-sex marriage.

Freshman Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, is wading into the controversy over Confederate statues, proposing to create a state commission to decide whether such memorials can be removed from public property.

Reintroducing legislation that has been previously rejected, Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, wants to add protections into Louisiana law against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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TRYING AGAIN

Like Morrell, others are revisiting debates from years past.

Lawmakers will again discuss expanding Louisiana’s Medicaid program. Edwards wants to begin offering the government-funded health insurance program to the working poor on July 1. Republicans are considering expansion roadblocks.

Democrats are hoping to gain traction on minimum wage increase and equal pay bills. People who want to buy raw milk from farmers will return with their push to lift a state ban on sales of unpasteurized milk.

And Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, will again try to repeal a law mandating the teaching of creationism in Louisiana science classes that was found unconstitutional in 1987.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte


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