Agreeing on a $25 billion operating budget amid major money problems was the highlight of the 2011 regular legislative session, lawmakers said Thursday.
“What started out as a very uncertain session evolved into salvaging some very critical programs in state government,” said Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge.
Broome and other lawmakers were asked to evaluate their performance on the last day of a session dominated by budget issues, primarily how to offset a $1.6 billion shortfall that drove the gathering.
The session ended at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Education, health-care and other advocates have repeatedly complained that their operations are suffering amid state revenue problems.
The two-month gathering also featured legislative resistance to key initiatives of Gov. Bobby Jindal, including his plan to merge Southern University in New Orleans with the University of New Orleans.
But after weeks of wrangling, including major budget spats between lawmakers and Jindal, a mostly standstill spending plan won final approval with two days left in the gathering.
“We think we have a very good session ending up with a great budget for the people of Louisiana,” Jindal said in his post-session comments to reporters.
The governor said the state is “in the middle of the greatest fiscal challenge probably the state’s faced in a generation” yet produced a balanced budget.
He also cited passage of a ballot measure that would dedicate more dollars to TOPS scholarships — which helps eligible students finance tuition — and LA GRAD Act 2.0, which gives colleges more autonomy to save dollars in exchange for meeting performance goals.
Asked about proposals that were rejected Jindal said he made no apologies for “bold reforms.”
The operating budget funds state services for the financial that begins on July 1.
It won House approval 101-0 on Tuesday — rare unanimity — and cleared the Senate 36-2 on Sunday.
Legislative leaders and Jindal said the final product protects critical services at a time when Louisiana, like most states, is facing major drops in aid for government operations.
“Overall the good thing is we got a budget with very little damage to higher education and health care,” said Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston.
The budget includes standstill funding for public schools and colleges and universities if the revenue from new tuition hikes is included.
“I think it went well based on the fact we were in the hole one and a half billion dollars,” said state Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge.
Republican state Rep. J. Rogers Pope, of Denham Springs, said while he was generally pleased with the budget, he was disappointed that state aid for public schools was frozen again.
State. Rep. Michael Jackson, No Party-Baton Rouge, made a similar point.
“We’ve done the best that we can do under the circumstances that we’ve been presented with,” Jackson said.
State Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville and vice chairman of the House Budget Committee, said limiting the use of onetime dollars — a House initiative — and avoiding a session-wide slowdown because of money issues were top accomplishments.
Yet aside from budget issues legislators said there were disappointments.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, cited the failure of the House to override Jindal’s veto of a four-cent cigarette tax.
Republican Rep. Steve Carter, of Baton Rouge, said the rejection of efforts to force colleges and universities to reach regional graduation rates in five years was disappointing.
Rep. Clif Richardson, R-Central, cited the failure of lawmakers to do more for public schools.
Democratic Rep. Regina Barrow, of Baton Rouge, said she was disappointed that the U. S. Department of Justice approved a House redistricting plan minus her hoped-for 30th minority district.
But Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, praised federal approval of the House redistricting plan, which he noted was the first time changes were not required.
Carter said he thought lawmakers spent too much time on a long-shot bid to gradually repeal Louisiana’s personal income tax at a cost of $5.4 billion.
But Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete and sponsor of that proposal, blamed Senate Republicans and Jindal for the failure of that bill to win final approval.
“For one legislator to try to do it on his own is probably unachievable,” Marionneaux said.
“But for a governor it is a very achievable,” he said.
Jindal and others said any such tax cut required an accompanying plan on how to replace the revenue without wrecking state services.