School buses put into operation after Jan. 1, 2023 would be required to have seat belts under a bill that won approval Tuesday in the House Education Committee.
The measure, House Bill 130, cleared the panel without objection despite concerns about costs to comply with the new rules. The measure would not require existing buses that lack seat belts to have them installed.
Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite and sponsor of the measure, said the change is long overdue.
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"With all we have done to make seat belts mandatory today this is the last big hole we have to close," Carter told the committee.
He said in 2004 the Legislature enacted a law that required schools buses to include seat belts but included a giant loophole – if state funds to install them are included.
"It has been 17 years and we have never appropriated the money to take care of this," Carter said.
The legislation initially carried a price-tag of about $34 million, including charges to retrofit buses in operation today.
"The problem is always 'Where do we get the money from?'" Carter said. "Where do we get the $34 million to do this?"
Changing the bill to make it apply only to school buses that go into operation nearly two years from now drastically trimmed the costs.
"I wish we had done it in 2004," Carter said of making the mandate apply in future years. "We wouldn't have gone 17 years without seat belts."
The hearing took place without House Education Committee Chairman Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, who is embroiled in controversy.
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Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington and vice chairman of the panel presided.
Mary-Patricia Wray, who represents the Louisiana School Bus Operators Association, emphasized that her comments were to provide information, not to oppose the bill.
Wray said the legislation would boost costs to school bus owner-operators by at least $1,000, which is what Carter said is the typical charge to add seat belts to a new bus.
She said the state is not in compliance with the constitutional requirement to fully fund education. "The dollars to make changes like this happen are not there," Wray said.
She also said that, unless school buses carry an aide to assist the driver, there will be no one present to ensure small children are properly buckled. "That is something that is really needed to properly implement this," Wray said.
Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, backed the bill and noted that parents cannot leave the hospital with their newborn without properly placing them in a child safety seat.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus said last week Garofalo should be replaced as chairman because of comments he made about his bill to put curbs on how colleges teach racism, sexism and other topics.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, who names committee chairs, said Monday he is holding private meetings on the issue and offered no timeline on any resolution.
Garofalo did not return telephone calls and a text message Tuesday.