Education, retirement highlight legislative session starting Monday
BATON ROUGE — Lawmakers will convene Monday in the Capitol to begin a legislative session to consider what Gov. Bobby Jindal described Friday as “a very aggressive agenda” that includes overhauling the state’s education and pension systems and approving a state budget. Lawmakers have filed more than 1,500 bills to consider during the session, which starts at noon and, by law, must end by 6 p.m. on June 4.
While Jindal’s proposals will generate the most intense attention, a panoply of other bills could surface as lightning rods, from a measure that would allow the governor to send the National Guard to New Orleans when the murder rate spikes, to proposals to increase the fines for texting while driving and to more strictly regulate traffic cameras.Other bills less likely to stir the public imagination, but with the potential to have lasting impacts, include those that force lawmakers to wait two years before taking a government job, term limits for all statewide officials and propose a constitutional amendment to largely take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature.
For lawmakers, the first battles of the session will likely be over Jindal’s education package. Before they even have time to warm their seats, the House Education committee will take up the three bills that make up the plan Wednesday.
Jindal has for months traveled the state hailing his schools agenda as a way to remake education and improve student performance through two principles: better teachers and more empowered parents. His opponents, Jindal said, represent “the coalition of the status quo that has failed our children.”
“It’s not about the next election,” Jindal said. “It’s about the next generation.”
Besides expressing doubts about the legality of Jindal’s approach, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said the governor’s agenda is logically inconsistent, because tenure changes are tired to high-stakes testing for students, while vouchers would allow students to take public money to private schools where teachers and students are not evaluated the same way.
“Teachers are professionals who want to be accountable to students and to the public,” Monaghan said. “But we want to be involved in the process.”
Politically speaking, Jindal ally Conrad Appel, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the session represents “a perfect political storm” for Jindal to succeed: a popular governor was re-elected; he’s joined by a friendly Legislature; and he’s attacking a system the public deems a failure
The state teachers unions — the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators — have drawn a line in the sand on the voucher proposals in particular. The groups say that it is an unconstitutional overreach to route the Minimum Foundation Program financing formula to private schools and for the Legislature effectively to override local tax earmarks that direct revenue streams to public schools through the MFP formula.
The unions, however, face diminished influence in a Legislature now controlled by Republicans and even some Democrats who have lined up largely behind the governor’s strategy, even if debate remains over some of the details. That could make the unions a bigger player in a future court challenge than they may end up being in the session.
The unions have thus far not focused their public ire on Jindal’s tenure changes, which allow the firing of any teacher — tenured or otherwise — the first year that they rank “ineffective” on their evaluations.
Besides the union concerns, lawmakers are certain to hear from local school board members who do not want to lose funding to private schools through the voucher programs. John White, the new state superintendent of education, has downplayed the effects of the voucher program. Jindal’s proposed eligibility standards could affect as many as 380,000 students, but White has said that only a 2,000 spots are likely to be available in private schools.
Other lobbying interests from the business community and network of nonpartisan government watchdog organizations have praised the governor’s plans while critics and others have questioned why the public school testing and accountability measures are not being applied to private and charter schools that get public money.
Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bagolusa, is sponsoring bills that would impose those accountability standards and also limit the voucher scholarship to the state portion of the per-pupil spending, thus allowing public systems to keep all local tax revenues. Jindal, joined by the Louisiana Family Forum, has said that only the voucher students should be tested, with the participating private schools not assigned a public accountability letter grade like their public counterparts. That’s the same tact Jindal used in the 2008 legislative fight to win approval for the Orleans pilot scholarship program.
Education may have generated the most discussion prior to the session, but Jindal’s proposed pension overhaul is the issue giving lawmakers heartburn. Jindal’s plan calls for raising the retirement age for state employees, some of whom would now be eligible to retire at 55, to 67; increasing employee contributions to their pension plans from 8 percent to 11 percent; and placing new employees in a “cash balance plan” similar to a 401(k) but that would protect them from market downturns.
Teachers and hazardous duty employees have been exempted from the adjustments.
The changes, which are opposed by the boards of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System and Teacher’s Retirement System of Louisiana, are aimed at immediate budget savings and eventually reducing the $18.5 billion gap between the amount of money in the four retirement systems that cover state employees and the amount actuaries predict is necessary to cover retirement costs. About half that gap, known as the “unfunded accrued liability,” is due to underfunding of the systems by previous legislatures and most of the balance is due to poor market performance in recent years. The state is now constitutionally mandated to pay off its debt by 2029.
But without adjustments, Jindal said Friday that the scheduled payments could eventually “crowd out” other priorities such as education and health care.
Administration officials have projected the changes could save the state $450 million in the first year, money that is largely being funneled into balancing the budget.
Lawmakers across the state say they have been swamped with calls from employees and their relatives opposing the pension plan. One of the top concerns is whether it is fair to change the terms of retirement for employees who are already in the system and whether, if such a plan is enacted, it would lead to a mass exodus of state workers.
Some legislators also have questioned whether Jindal’s plan runs afoul of constitutional provisions that protect retirement benefits and that the changes could lead to lawsuits. Administration officials have said they believe their plan is constitutional.
“It is a heated argument,” House Retirement Committee Chairman Keven Pearson, R-Slidell, said. “I’ve got to say the proposals are bold and need to be discussed and everything needs to be considered.”
Casting its shadow over all the issues of the session will be House Bill 1, which establishes the state budget for the next year. Jindal’s $25.5 billion proposal would cut about 6,370 state jobs, 2,720 of which are filled, and calls for privatizing portions of state government.
Top on the privatization list are the Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport and the J. Levy Dabadie Correctional Center in Pineville, which would be combined and sold to a private firm. The plan also calls for closing mental health facilities in Tangipahoa and Shreveport and outsourcing a portion of the office that oversees benefits for state employees.
Higher education funding would remain stable in the budget and the Department of Health and Hospitals would see an increase, paid for in part by one-time money, that would be used to tap additional Medicaid money that is available from the federal government.
The plan also anticipates the expiration of tolls on the Crescent City Connection, the privatization of the Algiers, Gretna and Chalmette ferries and the elimination of ferries Reserve and White Castle.
But because much of the budget depends on the passage of the pension bills, lawmakers may find themselves crunched if those plans do not come to fruition.
“I think they are playing Russian roulette,” Pearson said of building the budget around the pension bills.