With a primary on the second weekend of Jazz Fest, and only three months after an historic mayoral election, New Orleans has gone on without paying much attention to the race for District 93. So too has this year’s legislative session. In fact, should the race extend to the March 29th run-off (not an unlikely event in a field of six), the state rep for District 93 will be decided with just less than a month left in the 2010 legislative session. Even if a single candidate does emerge victorious on May 1st, they will still reach the statehouse after the deadline to introduce new legislation, which passed on April 20th.
However, this does not mean the Representative for District 93 will have no impact. Rather, at least for this year, they will have to work within the context of legislation already on the table to further their agenda. While the bills already proposed are too numerous to list hear, there are a few central issues already setting the mood in Baton Rouge.
The Budget: Front and center in this year’s legislative session is the gaping $319 Million hole caused by lower than expected tax revenue. Because of the Louisiana constitutional requirement that the state run a yearly balanced budget, all of the spending cuts, freezes and tapping of one time sources of funds must be in place before the end of the fiscal year, June 30th. The deficit is the second this year (the first, back in December was $248 Million), so the legislature and the governor have been reluctant to resort yet again to spending cuts for higher education and healthcare. However, they are far from in agreement.
Jindal has proposed a complex accounting maneuver that would use money saved to repay the federal government for Medicaid and other shared Medical program overpayments to plug the gap (along with a $65 Million spending freeze already in effect). The federal repayment money would then be replaced by stimulus money next year. The legislature, on the other hand, has already released from committee a bill that would draw $172 Million of the approximately $850 Million Budget Stabilization (“rainy day”) Fund to help pay down the deficit. Jindal hopes to save this money for next year’s projected budget deficit of (that’s right) $1 Billion, as well as for when federal stimulus money runs out, a period some have begun to ominously call “the cliff.” In addition to these two measures, a measure recently passed the senate that would mandate state agencies cut staff by five percent.
While logic would dictate dealing with this issue as soon as possible, the slim chance of more federal aid to states has slowed debate, especially in regards to next year’s budget. This guarantees that, whichever candidate is elected to represent district 93, they will have to deal with the pending, and possibly current, deficits.
Education and Healthcare: With of chronic budget shortfalls all but definite for years to come, the state’s two biggest expenditures, higher education and healthcare (specifically the state hospital system), are the two most vulnerable budget items. In terms of the current year’s deficit, both felt the brunt of the initial $248 Million worth of spending cuts, to the tune of $108.1 million for the department of health and hospitals, and $84 million from the LSU system. This represented almost 85% of all budget cuts (the DSS got the third largest, at about $14 Million). While they have largely been spared in the second round, it is likely that, considering the often intractable process for cutting other agency budgets, they will face cuts in the future. One such long-term cost saving initiatives, proposed by house speaker Jim Tucker (a member of the New Orleans Caucus), would have saved money by consolidated the multiple boards that oversee the regional universities. While the issue was tabled after an 8-8 committee vote, it is not dead, and could resurface next year, if not before the end of this year’s session.
Another issue, proposed as both a long-term cost-saving and efficiency boosting measure, is the privatization of a large portion of Louisiana’s healthcare system. It was first floated in February, as part of Jindal’s initial 2010-11 budget. It called for the replacing a number of the state run rural healthcare, assisted living and drug treatment facilities with private hospitals receiving state reimbursement. However, many lawmakers have been reluctant to support the move without a study verifying that it will actually reduce costs, especially after the largely negative response it received during the public comments period on March 30. No doubt, this will be up for discussion through the end of this year’s session.
Finally, a myriad of bills affecting K-12 public education have been proposed and, while many will probably die in committee or pass the house before the election (for example, a bill nominally requiring minimum criteria for the head of BESE passed this week) some will certainly remain. One such bill alters the formula BESE uses to supplement local per pupil spending, requiring that per-pupil spending be equal across different school districts. Another standardizes curriculum across the various charter and local districts. A third consolidates the different bodies that regulate charter schools.
Unspent Recovery Dollars: With the LRA folding into the Office of Community Development at the end of July, it is likely that some before then the legislature will try and hurry out the door any unspent recovery money. As of March, this money totaled to roughly $3.4 Billion. However, much of this money has already been allocated to different uses (resolving Road Home disputes, capital projects in Orleans Parish, etc.) and has simply not been tapped by the entities to which it has been assigned. For this reason, the legislature will have to work both to get the money out the door and to figure out what to do with any money that remains (an amount likely to be at least in the hundreds of millions). Proposals for this money have varied, from economic development to blight remediation, though until the LRA gives final figures, plans remain hazy. Things could become even more convoluted if the state tries to reallocate untapped aid to individual parishes. Considering New Orleans has only used $13 Million of the $325 Million allocated for capital projects, the New Orleans Caucus, including our next district 93 rep, will probably be heavily involved in that discussion.
National Healthcare Bill: As recently as April 26th, a House Bill (HB 94), declaring the “Obamacare” bill’s mandate that individuals buy coverage has unconstitutional, cleared the House Insurance Committee, by one vote, bringing it a step closer to a floor debate. While it is possible that it will die either in the second committee reviewing the bill, or on the house floor before the conclusion of the district special election, it may not. Even if this particular bill dies, the issue of national healthcare is likely to creep into the house in other ways, not least of which is the coalition of black reps and senators (many from New Orleans) pressuring Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to drop the law suit he has brought against Washington about healthcare legislation. As a member of the New Orleans Caucus, and with a field of candidates that is 50% African-American, it is not unreasonable to assume a district 93 rep will be expected to way in on this issue.
Candidates’ Priorities: To try and gauge which issues different candidates will gravitate towards, NoDef asked those we could reach what their top legislative priority is and, given their late arrival, what bills will they work amend or pass to further this agenda?
So far, our response has been limited to three candidates:
Thomas Roubichaux: Mr. Robichaux listed education as his top priority, and said that he plans to support House Commission Resolution 20 pertaining to “the MFP Formula, the mandatory funding per student formula. The bill should equalize that because right now, the MFP is paid into the school system at one rate, but the school system is required to pay it out at different rates, depending on what kind of school it is, so it’s a different rate for the recovery school district, a different rate for a charter school district, for a BESE charter, for this kind of charter for that kind of charter, so the point is to make it equitable…to make it an even funding mechanism. So I would jump on that bill first and make sure it is done properly, because right now I don’t think it is done quite right.” He also expressed support for two bills that would allow for second parents and non-married individuals to adopt “regardless of sex”, giving the example of “one sister dies, and the two other surviving sisters want to adopt that sister’s child…to be able to leave everything to that child.”
James Perry: Mr. Perry’s focus was on the budget. He told NoDef, "while I will be unable to introduce new legislation I will have the ability to offer amendments. With the looming budget shortfall I feel my number one priority will be to defend education and health care from cuts by those who would attempt to balance our current budget on the health and future of citizens." He went on express his support for House Bill 276, a bill that has already cleared the house and is up for debate in the senate that would streamline the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s ability to expropriate and resell blighted property.
Carlos Hornbrook: Mr. Hornbrook summed up his stance by saying that “we need to fix things economically in our district, in order to improve things, not only in our district, but city wide.” When asked about specific legislation, he said that “one of the things that I’m going try to do is make sure that the district isn’t broken up” a reference to the possibility that the 2010 census will allow the legislature to redraw district 93 out of existence. While not on the table this session, a bill was introduced in February that would redistrict the senate, taking some seats away from New Orleans. Mr. Hornbrook also expressed his determined opposition to the already stalled bill that would consolidate the board different state university governing boards, saying, “Smaller colleges, they would be hurt by that.” He also expressed his commitment to a number of long term goals, including eliminating the state income tax, making OC Haley a tax free zone, and penalizing businesses that do not hire applicants with a military background.
In addition to the above issues, it is likely that the victor in the District 93 election will face wide range of other debates. Many bills have been introduced that would affect statewide issues like hunting and fishing and obscure issues like Internet stalking. In addition, a recent study has shown that the Louisiana Economic Development Agency has no method for gauging the effectiveness of its various incentives and tax credits. While nothing has been debated, even in committee yet, a bill strengthening reporting requirements is pending discussion in a senate subcommittee. The issue of Charity Hospital, the VA hospital, and the state funded land clearing will also likely come up at some point. While there are no bills currently in the legislature addressing this issue, as the representative for lower Mid-City (and the hospitals’ footprints) a district 93 rep will probably feel pressure to address the issue.