Despite the depth of Louisiana’s budget woes and the short length of this year’s legislative session, many of the state’s lawmakers want to embark on contentious debates that stray far from financial matters.
Fights over the Common Core education standards, gay rights, abortion, marijuana and gun laws are all in the queue for the two-month legislative session that begins Monday and must end by June 11.
Lawmakers proposing the nonfiscal issues insist they don’t intend to let their proposals sidetrack the House and Senate from the important work of balancing next year’s budget and finding ways to keep public colleges and health care services from steep reductions. The state faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Much of the decision-making over which tax changes to make, which fees to raise and which other financial maneuvers to use will be hammered out in closed-door negotiations. For some lawmakers, that means there’s lots of debate time to address other concerns.
The most high-profile, nonfinancial battle involves efforts to yank the Common Core education standards and associated testing from Louisiana’s public school classrooms. A similar push failed last year. The Common Core standards are benchmarks of what students should learn at each grade level in English and math. They’ve been adopted by more than 40 states as a way to better prepare students for college and careers. Opponents say the standards are developmentally inappropriate and part of federal efforts to nationalize education.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has made an attack on Common Core the centerpiece of his thin legislative agenda, and opponents of the multistate standards hope increased public disapproval of Common Core can help change their legislation’s fate this year. Attempts to end use of the standards through legal challenges have failed so far. Also on the rehashed debate front, lawmakers again will consider whether to allow medical marijuana to be dispensed in Louisiana or to lessen penalties for simple marijuana possession. Sheriffs and district attorneys successfully stonewalled the bills last year, but polls show growing public support for the ideas.
Grabbing attention in recent days is a proposal from newly elected Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, that seems poised to drag Louisiana into the uproar over religious objection laws that drew national attention in Indiana and Arkansas. Johnson’s “Marriage and Conscience Act” would ban the state from denying licenses, certifications, employment, contracts, benefits or tax deductions because of actions a person takes “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” about marriage.
Johnson says the bill is designed to protect opponents of same-sex marriage from state penalties because of their moral convictions. But LGBT advocacy groups and some legal experts say the proposal would enshrine discrimination against same-sex couples in state law.
Jindal, who is courting Christian conservatives as he builds a likely presidential campaign, has taken Johnson’s side on the legislation, and the issue could become one of the most divisive of the legislative session.
Gay rights organizations will be countering with proposals by Reps. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, and Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, to extend new protections in state law against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Similar measures have gone nowhere in prior sessions.
On another social issue front, new proposals targeting abortion have been pre-filed. Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, is pushing a “personhood” amendment to the state constitution that would declare a fetus is a “human being from the moment of conception.” Rep. Lenar Whitney, R-Houma, wants to prohibit doctors from performing an abortion if they know the woman wants the procedure because of the fetus’ sex.
Other lawmakers want debates on whether police officers should wear body cameras when on duty; whether school boards should have to give elementary school students classroom instruction on firearm safety; and whether to ban people from letting a child 12 years old or younger use an Uzi automatic machine gun. The bills promise to drum up controversy and attention at the Louisiana Capitol over the next two months, even if the financial deals largely get made behind the scenes.
Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana State Capitol for The Associated Press.