Saturday, July 13, 2024

Lawmakers laud money moves as highlight of regular session

by BIZ Magazine

By Elizabeth White | LSU Manship School New Service

BATON ROUGE–Three senior lawmakers said a decision last Friday to shift $717 million in state funds was one of the highlights of the legislative session that ended Monday. 

The lawmakers said they supported moving the money from a state trust fund for revenue stabilization to increase spending on transportation projects, maintenance of facilities on college campuses and public safety efforts. 

“We tried to address some shovel-ready projects and deferred maintenance and our water and sewer and our highway priority program, and it’s putting people to work,” Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisonburg, said. 

“It’s going to be a return on our investment with that money being put out in the workplace and in our economy,” he added. “It was a very wise move to put this money together and get it out and get it working for our people back home.” 

The decision came late in the nearly two-month session, which ended Monday. 

“I think it was a great investment, and so not only are we fixing problems that exist in our communities and throughout the state, but we are also putting people to work,” Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said. 

The lawmakers, including Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, also discussed a $9 million cut to early childhood education programs and the possibility of a constitutional convention, which they are unsure will happen this summer. 

The Public Affairs Research Council, a nonprofit research group in Baton Rouge, held a webinar Tuesday with the three legislators to recap the session. 

They discussed the $48 billion budget for the next fiscal year, starting July 1, and the process of writing and passing it. The budget also includes one-time $2,000 stipends for K-12 teachers.

“There was nothing hidden,” McFarland, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said. “Everything was very transparent, and that was a great opportunity for us,” he said, adding that “there was open communication in a way I’ve never seen before, and I was very proud of that.”

Barrow disagreed with the $9 million cut to early childhood education programs, which came from the Senate on Friday and was concurred to in the House Sunday. 

“I’m not happy with where it is because when we talk about deterrence to crime, that to me is a deterrence to crime,” Barrow said. “When we know for sure that young people have a great start, and they have every opportunity to be more educated, then we know that they’re going to have a better track forward.” 

Womack, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and McFarland stood by the decision. McFarland said he plans to have his staff dig into what the early childhood programs include and what has worked over the years.

It is still unclear if there will be a special session called in August to convene a constitutional convention, which was a big part of Gov. Jeff Landry’s agenda this session. A bill passed to hold one passed the House but was never considered in the Senate. 

McFarland believes the bill became “watered down” throughout the legislative process as more subjects were taken off the table for discussion. He is interested in the opportunity to examine Article 7 of the constitution, which deals with revenue and taxes. 

“Obviously, you recognize there are only two places we can cut every year, and it’s higher ed and health care, and when we have those big shortfalls, those are the two that seem to feel the pain the most,” McFarland said. “So, also knowing that we have a financial shortfall next year, I think it’s important that we now reevaluate our tax process.” 

Barrow said she never got clarity on what a convention would look like. She is concerned that higher education and healthcare would be on the chopping block. 

Womack is unsure about a special session, but he believes the constitution does need to be looked at carefully to see what is and is not working and what could be moved around. 

The Legislature also saw multiple bills to make it hard for the public to obtain state, which was another part of Landry’s agenda. In the final hours of the session Monday, an amended version of one of those bills passed. It would prohibit anyone who is not a Louisiana resident from making a public records request about the governor.  

McFarland said that whenever people disagree with his votes, he gets inundated with public records requests.  Barrow that government officials have staff members to deal with requests and should be responsive to the people. 

The webinar wrapped up with the lawmakers sharing what decisions they believe will have the most positive impact on Louisiana’s citizens.

Barrow believes the investment in higher education, especially money to tackle the long lists of deferred maintenance on university buildings, will have huge benefits today and long term. Womack cited the changes made to both K-12 and higher education. McFarland said he is most excited about the infrastructure investments. 

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