State Capitol with exxon.jpg

The Louisiana State Capitol

Fretting over the possibility of a fiscal nightmare, state lawmakers are behind their usual pace in preparing for the regular legislative session.

Other than passing a state spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, legislators cannot legally raise revenues or consider most fiscal matters in an even-numbered year. So handling the expected $1 billion-plus shortage in revenues by any other way than just whacking spending needs to be done in a special session, which Gov. John Bel Edwards says he won’t call until a majority of lawmakers get on the same page.

Though preoccupied with fiscal matters, some lawmakers have started looking at how they will fill the 60 days between March 12 and June 4 for the regular legislative session scheduled in the constitution.

“I haven’t thought about it much to tell truth,” House Majority Leader Lance Harris said, adding that he’s focused on fiscal solutions that would attract 70 votes in the 105-member House needed to pass many of the budget options. “But I know members are putting together their bills.”

Legislators can begin "pre-filing" bills on Thursday. In 2016, the last non-fiscal session, they filed 1,644 bills and 1,360 resolutions – 681 of which were signed into law.

Edwards said he wants to try again to raise the minimum wage and enact a law guaranteeing equal pay. A senator or representative will have to sponsor the measure for him, but finding one shouldn’t be a problem. Both measures passed the Senate in previous years only to die in the House Labor Committee, which is dominated by pro-business Republicans.

Legislators are working on requiring co-payments for some Medicaid patients, as well as work requirements. Bills that would bring riverboat casinos onshore are anticipated. So are efforts to change the popular TOPS college grant program and to force a hard look at the financial incentives given to the New Orleans Saints.

The Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force on Tuesday is expected to recommend legislation that would allow gambling on land for all riverboats, rather than just the one location on Poydras Street in New Orleans. Other legislation would reconfigure the actual space where gambling takes place to allow for more games.

State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said he would carry the legislation, which if passed would mark the first time since 1991 that the state has made significant changes to gambling laws, which have become a larger source of government revenue than oil and gas.

Democratic Norco state Sen. Gary Smith, who also is on the task force, said he would co-sponsor some of the bills.

Smith and House Insurance Committee Chairman Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, said they are looking at a bill that would alter the way Citizens Insurance “depopulates,” or forces some of its policyholders to find homeowners insurance in the private market. The rest of the state’s homeowners are required to keep Citizens’ afloat via assessments tacked onto their insurance policies. Most of Citizens’ policyholders live in Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

The idea is to let the board of Citizens to start taking a hand in deciding which homeowners can be sent to the private market. Opposed to this concept in the past, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said last week he was persuaded by the data the Citizens’ board presented and will work with them to provide some safeguards.

“I’m in transition,” Donelon said Thursday, “if we could spread our risk better as private companies do.”

On Friday, another task force is gathering for a final meeting to decide how to simplify the classification of crimes.

But a split has occurred between members of the panel on whether the standardization should be made on the front end, when prison sentences are rendered, or the back end, when various parole options, like credit for good behavior and participating in self-improvement programs, can shorten actual time behind bars.

After four months of study, a legislative task force to shore up funding for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is considering sweeping changes. Or at least the task force’s chairman is. The full panel has yet to vote on what legislation to recommend.

The state is spending $292 million to give 52,000 students the aid, but the program is vulnerable to budget cuts.

Chairman Dan “Blade” Morrish, a Republican state senator from Jennings, has talked to the governor about turning TOPS Opportunity, the most common program, into an annual $4,000 grant instead of increasing it to match tuition costs. He also would increase the grade point average and ACT college readiness test scores on other TOPS programs, then pay stipends on top of the tuition costs for those who qualify for the highest level TOPS awards.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Kenny Havard said the outcry about some NFL players kneeling during the national anthem stirred him to review state taxpayer largesse to the New Orleans Saints, a team owned by one of the richest men in the country, Tom Benson.

Havard said he realizes that most of the deals can’t be changed while under contract, but at the least his efforts should start the conversation.

Benson’s football and basketball teams are able to use rent-free the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center, both built and operated by taxpayers. In addition to giving tax breaks, the state agreed to rent offices in a Benson-owned office tower.

House Retirement Committee Chairman Kevin Pearson, an investment adviser in Slidell, says chatting with other retirement specialists got him looking at the possibility of allowing former state employees who worked long enough to be vested to take their state pension earnings with them when they leave government employ. The concept is called pension portability.

The way things stand now, if someone works for the state for, say, six years, then moves to private industry for another 25 or so, that former state employee still receives a pension, albeit a much lower amount than someone who spent an entire career on the state payroll.

Central Republican Rep. Barry Ivey independently is developing similar legislation.

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said AARP, which represents people over the age of 50, approached him to handle legislation that would direct more government money toward helping the elderly be cared for at home rather than in an institutional setting.

State Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, has been studying Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income people, children and the elderly, and covers about a third – 1.58 million enrollees – of the state’s population. The federal government pays nearly two-thirds of the $8.6 billion spent on Medicaid in the state, but it is still the largest single program in Louisiana’s budget.

Bacala is looking at requiring co-payments -- a common practice in private insurance -- for Medicaid participants who can afford it. Medicaid patients would be required to pay up to $8 for medical services, depending on their financial situation, under the plan Bacala is considering. He says state government would able to realize about $170 million.

Gov. Edwards has said he’s okay with the idea, depending on the particulars, and is not opposed to requiring able-bodied Medicaid enrollees to get a job or worker training.

Some of the changes could be addressed internally by the state health department, Bacala said, but some legislation might be required.

"I’ll know in a few weeks what needs to be filed as a bill,” he said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.