Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Play nice, boys and girls

With three weeks remaining before our hired hands head off to Baton Rouge for the final legislative session leading up to election ‘07, one might expect Larry the Cable Guy’s “get’er done” attitude to be high on everyone’s agenda.
After all, it’s legacy time for a governor who isn’t running for election and roughly 60 legislators who can’t run again (that pesky term limits thing). Toss into the mix the 20-somethings — those term limited in one chamber who are seeking to cross over into another — and one might led to believe worthwhile legislation and a friendly, bi-partisan session just could be possible.
Won’t happen. Already, there are clouds building on the horizon which indicate things could be as contentious during this regular session as was witnessed during the not-so-special session of last year.
Just a few examples:
• There’s roughly $2 billion (depending on who you believe) in surplus allegedly hanging around in the state treasury, and there are plans for how to spend it “wisely” coming from both sides of the aisle. At the top of the list is raises for the state’s teachers and support personnel, increases in supplemental pay for public safety workers (police, fire fighters, EMT, etc.), state employees and higher education personnel. Gov. Kathleen Blanco has proposed a $600 million-plus education package, but that will hinge on whether or not everyone who casts a vote believes there really is that large a surplus.
If there is, you’d better believe legislators will support raises of sorts (one must consider the large voting blocks which would be impacted), but there will be plenty of competition to get collective hands on chunks of dollars to be delivered back home (into individual districts) and some of the proposed spending packages will be unique, to say the least.
Watch for someone to point out that Blanco’s proposal, which would mean about $2,400 extra for teachers, comes on top of a teacher raise of another $1,200 which would come from a predicted increase in the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), the vehicle which drives educational spending. That little double hit is surely to draw attention from some legislators with special constituencies to appease.
• Tax cuts are the subject of numerous pre-filed bills, and coupled with those proposals are plans to overhaul the dreaded Stelly plan. In fact, some Stelly adjusters are coming from legislators who cast favorable votes to put the idea to the voters. High on the revamp list is the portion which deals with income tax deductions. Some polls indicate voters are inclined to be a little miffed at their electees who thought the plan was a good idea, and the heat could be on whether a remodeled version emerges from this session or not.
Some believe certain legislative delegations are using the tax cuts to assist specific areas and constituents, which would dilute the impact of savings for every Louisiana resident (as opposed to citizen) and could even result in no benefit at all to a large portion of the electorate. Even a measure to increase the Homestead Exemption from $75,000 to as high as $150,000 is on the table. That would certainly put someone in an enviable position if, say, someone was seeking another four years at the government trough.
• Health care is a critical area of need, but there’s no specific plan coming from either Democrats or Republicans which covers all the state’s un- or under-insured. Republicans reportedly are offering an idea which would private sectorize health plans, but would still leave hundreds of thousands of Louisianians without or woefully short on benefits.
Blanco received the support of U.S. Senator David Vitter to spend more than $70 million to buy land and hire architects to begin planning for a teaching hospital (definition: charity) in downtown New Orleans. The Blanco plan would also deliver $226 million in federal money to LSU, contingent on the university developing a business plan of how to run the facility. It’s a move which could face a major challenge, however, since — in another measure addressing the perceived need — the state senate rejected a proposal which would have given LSU a $300 million federal block grant.
Vitter reportedly does not favor giving LSU the $226 million, and the debate has yet to begin in earnest. For her part, Blanco believes the new hospital will significantly help in efforts to “redesign” Louisiana’s healthcare system. Perhaps the legislature will tackle the issue head-on, but don’t bet on it.
Undercurrents are already picking up speed as the session approaches. From both Republicans and Democrats, we’re hearing tones which leave us to believe contention will be the cornerstone of the upcoming meet. Republicans reportedly still do not favor any raising of the spending cap, while Democrats are sounding like a majority which cannot effectively deal with the new super minority. Republicans are convinced they can become the majority party in the House after 2007, and Democrats seem to be struggling to find a strategy to fight off that challenge.
Caught in the middle is the governor. While sounding like a politician who is stepping aside “for the good of the state,” she finds herself about to face a legislative session without the power of a presence with which the opposition must deal and behind which the majority must rally. With the governor’s mansion in the balance, don’t expect a harmonious couple of months in Baton Rouge.
Louisiana voters will most certainly be paying attention to the games when the regular session gets underway. If we expect our boys and girls to play nice, we’re expecting more than this session can deliver. There’ll be rhetoric enough for two campaign seasons, and spin machines will be working overtime. Most likely, the best we can hope for is minimum damage.
If change is in the air politically in Louisiana, it needs to begin the last day of April. Surely, it’s not too much to ask.


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