Friday, May 15, 2009

House okays $27 billion state budget

Rep. Herbert Dixon (D-Alexandria) gave it his best shot on Thursday, but his fellow lawmakers denied a budget amendment that would have allowed school support staff to continue receiving a $1,000 pay supplement.

Doggedly sticking to the script written by Gov. Bobby Jindal, the House of Representatives on Thursday adopted a $27 billion state budget that slashes funding for higher education and health care, denies pay raises to school support staff and eliminates over 3,600 state jobs.

The vote was difficult and emotional for members, with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin (D-Jonesboro), the author of the budget, almost dissolving into tears at one point. Rep. Fannin characterized the budget bill, HB1, as “an unfortunate situation.”

Despite the best efforts of members friendly to public education, no amendments were approved that would ease the dire financial situation facing higher education and K-12 schools.

Representatives of the governor’s office prowled the House chamber during the debate, sending warning glances to lawmakers who may have been wavering on Jindal’s hard budget line.

School support staff pay supplement is denied

Rep. Herbert Dixon (D-Alexandria) attempted to continue the $1,000 supplement that school support staff won last year, but was rebuffed by his colleagues.

Rep. Dixon’s plan was to siphon some $48 million away from economic development slush funds in order to prevent what amounts to a $1,000 pay cut for school staff.

Members loyal to the governor leaped to oppose his amendment. One of them, Rep. John Schroder (R-Covington), said the raise is unnecessary because Louisiana support workers “are the best paid in the South.” Rep. Dixon politely but firmly informed Rep. Schroder that he was wrong.

Thirty-four House members voted for Rep. Dixon’s amendment; 63 voted against it.

Higher education funding rebuffed

On a 44-52 vote, the House turned down an amendment by Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) that would have siphoned $59 million to higher education from the state’s business incentive slush fund.

The biggest victory for higher education came when Rep. Fannin brought a successful amendment to redirect $13.5 million from the state’s economic development fund to colleges and universities. The money had been pledged to the Shaw Group for projects in Lake Charles, but Shaw Chairman Jim Bernhardt volunteered to give up the money if it would go to higher education.

Lawmakers pointed out that colleges and universities have been given permission to raise tuition and fees, which should somewhat lessen the effects of the $219 million cut to higher education in Governor Jindal’s budget.

School libraries stiffed

Things turned ugly and elitist when Rep. Richard Gallot (D-Ruston) unsuccessfully tried to divert some money from a New Orleans school voucher scheme to save a school library program.

The $500,000 amendment would have paid for a computer search engine used by high school students on research projects. Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) objected, saying that students could do the same research in public libraries.

“Don’t those students have library cards?” Rep. Burns asked in a statement reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s famous “Let them eat cake” quote.

Rep. Gallot tried to explain that many rural students don’t have transportation to libraries that could be many miles away, and that students should have the resources they need at school.
“But don’t they have library cards?” Rep. Burns asked again.

“Maybe in another life I can represent a district as rich as yours,” Rep. Gallot responded. “I represent a rural area, and if they can’t do it at school it won’t get done.”

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