Jim Beam column:Session was mixed blessing

Published 6:58 am Thursday, June 9, 2022

The legislative session that just ended didn’t please everyone, but it’s one of the better sessions of all that I’ve watched closely for over 54 years. Much good was accomplished, but equally important is the fact some mighty bad bills died on the calendar on the last day.

The good things were possible because of $3.7 billion in federal pandemic funds and state budget surpluses. Legislators wisely used one-time funds on one-time projects.

Businesses avoided higher taxes when $500 million went to the unemployment trust fund. Lawmakers paid $400 million in New Orleans federal levee debt, reimbursed FEMA $226 million for storm recovery, put $175 million in the state’s rainy day fund, and retired $70 million in state retirement system debt.

Higher education that suffered through eight years of budget cuts during the Gov. Bobby Jindal administration got faculty pay raises and funds for long-overdue maintenance of college and university facilities.

K-12 education saw teachers get $1,500 and support workers $750 in annual pay increases. Educators wanted more and deserve more, but legislators declined to increase those numbers as Gov. John Bel Edwards recommended.

Prospects for new Interstate 10 bridges at Lake Charles and Baton Rouge also look much brighter, thanks to Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and retiring state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen.

Lake Charles has $400 million already in its bridge fund and Baton Rouge has $300 million that can be used to get the projects moving quicker.

A 0.45 percent increase in the state sales tax that was approved in 2018 goes off the books in 2025 and that is expected to create a $423 million budget shortfall. If it does, that tax increase could be continued in order to avoid cutting health care and higher education.

No one likes higher taxes, but the 2018 increase of 0.45 percent is only costing about $65 per year for the nearly 70 percent of Louisiana households that earn $50,000 or less. It’s $130 a year for those earning $100,000 per year.

Louisiana does have the highest state and local sales taxes in the country that average 9.55 percent. However, the state sales tax is only 4.45 percent at the moment. It is the local sales taxes approved by voters that are as high as 7 percent in some places.

Another positive was creation of a special committee to investigate allegations of a State Police coverup in the death of motorist Ronald Greene. Gov. Edwards is expected to testify when the committee holds its next meeting.

OK, now the dangers we averted because of the bad bills that died and other things that happened. The one bill I watched closely would have sent 17-year-olds back to adult prisons. Under current law, those that age who commit violent crimes can be sent to adult prisons if juvenile judges think that is where they belong.

We avoided the possibility of gun owners being allowed to carry concealed weapons without a permit and safety training. And that same bill that was amended to let volunteer teachers and school administrators become school protection officers and carry weapons died on the calendar.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, sponsored legislation designed to change the boundaries of the Central school system. It would have removed a subdivision affecting 400 children, many from Black families.

Residents of the affected area during a House committee hearing called it a racist move, which White denied. Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, reportedly told White he opposed the bill. It died on the House calendar.

Rep. Larry Frieman, R-Abita Springs, got the House to approve his bill  that would have allowed either the House or Senate to terminate all or part of a governor’s emergency declaration. Some legislators didn’t like Edwards’ handling of the coronavirus, which he happened to handle extremely well.

An editorial in Wednesday’s American Press detailed the unsuccessful efforts of some Republican legislators to make it more difficult to get COVID-19 vaccinations and enforce other health guidelines.

Negatives sometimes turn into positives, and that is exactly what happened when those bad bills died at the end of the legislative session. Our thanks to all the good guys that made it possible.