2012 Legislative Session RecapJun 19th, 2012 | By Terri Sercovich | Category: news
Louisiana lawmakers concluded their 2012 session Monday, June 4. The whirlwind session concluded with legislators passing major education reform, a referendum regarding the tolls for the Crescent City Connection, and many other measures that effect Plaquemines Parish.
Several projects in Plaquemines Parish are closer to construction as a result of Gov. Bobby Jindal signing into law, HB2, the annual funding mechanism for capital construction projects around the state.
Peter’s Road bypass, Phase 2, which includes construction of the approaches on the Jefferson Parish side of the Intracoastal Canal received an additional appropriation of $19.5 million bring the total in the construction account to $26.2 million. Phase 1 which originates at Hwy. 23 and Walker Rd. began construction last year. As the project progresses, funding totaling about $65 million will still be needed for the actual bridge to connect with the two projects which are underway.
“I was very pleased we were able to find funds for this project during these tough financial times,” said State Senator David R. Heitmeier, O.D. “It will keep Peters Road moving forward for the benefit of Plaquemines, Jefferson, and the entire region.” he added.
An important project vital to South Plaquemines also was approved providing $6 million for the elevation of three miles of LA Highway near the Myrtle Grove area.
The area has historically flooded during hurricanes and inclement rainfall cutting off access for the residents and industry commuting to South Plaquemines. The measure was worked on by LADODT, and the entire west Plaquemines delegation including Heitmeier, Senator John Alario and Representative Chris Leopold.
Heitmeier was also successful in adding $200,000 to the construction bill to secure buoys in the Intracoastal Canal near the Belle Chasse Bridge. The buoys allow vessels to tie up while waiting for bridge openings when curfews keep the bridge closed to marine traffic and opened for vehicles.
While inclusion in HB2 is a necessity for construction projects, actual funding depends on bond commission approval and the state’s ability to sell bonds for financing before actual construction begins.
Vouchers and MFP formula:
Arguably one of the most controversial items on the legislative agenda this session was the education reform package which included school vouchers for public school students and Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) formula changes, which were made to fund these vouchers.
Starting Fall of 2012, students from low-income households and low-performing schools are eligible for charter school tuition vouchers. The ultimate goal for the legislation was to allow parents more choice for their children even if their school of choice is outside of their school district– a divisive concept that is being challenged in court by the Louisiana Teachers Union for constitutionality.
The new legislation now dictates that charter schools are to be funded by the MFP formula, which in the past used local tax revenue to fund public schools exclusively. The inclusion of charter schools into this formula means less money for traditional public schools. State Rep. Chris Leopold says Plaquemines Parish is set have to a reduction in funding of nearly $1.6 million due to the MFP formula changes. Leopold voted for the vouchers and education reform packages, but was staunchly against the MFP formula due to the way it adversely affected Plaquemines Parish.
“I’m for education reform but the formula needs to be tweaked so school districts who are fiscally responsible aren’t penalized,” Leopold explained. “I was comfortable with the vouchers because schools can opt out, but I lobbied very heavily against the MFP formula– my position never waivered on that.”
Leopold believes that the formula has always been unfair to Plaquemines Parish due to the way it bases funding amounts on the amount of taxes parishes levy on residents. Plaquemines Parish is considered to be one of the richest parishes in Louisiana due to the abundance of oil and gas resources, but the tax rate on individuals is low.
“It penalizes us for our strong tax base, and for not taxing residents enough,” Leopold explained.
Coastal Restoration and the 2012 State Master Plan:
Made into law May 22, the legislature approved the $50 billion, 50 year state master plan that will work to ensure the longevity and protection of the Louisiana Coast. The plan was drafted by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, and could be partially funded by BP’s Clean Water Act violation fines if the Restore Act passes in Congress. The Master Plan includes large-scale fresh water diversions, which have been widely criticized by fishermen in Plaquemines Parish due to the freshwater diversions’ effect on the salinity of oyster beds. Instead of diversions, the fishermen would like to see more emphasis on sediment dredging from the Mississippi. The sediment collected from this could then be pumped into marsh restoration sites.
Leopold voted in favor of the Master Plan. He introduced HB 1057, which is “designed to compensate oyster fishermen who are negatively effected by the diversions.” As part of that compensation, the bill would lift the 10 year moratorium on new oyster leases so the fishermen can move on to new markets, he said. While HB 1057 was not heard this session, Leopold said he wasn’t surprised the bill wasn’t passed this session, as his intentions were to get the conversation rolling in the right direction and to make ground for next session. “When we get back next year, we can find a resolution to bring this to fruition.”
UPL In 2012
The state’s 2012 budget included $708 million of UPL funds. For the past several years, Heitmeier has crafted legislation which allows the state to better utilize federal reimbursements in helping hospitals around the state. The funds are calculated comparing the difference between what Medicaid pays and the amount the services would cost if paid privately and an amount referred to as the Upper Payment Limit (UPL).
“When we started researching this several years ago, no one could have imagined how beneficial this would be to our state,” said Heitmeier who modeled the state’s efforts on a plan being successfully executed in Texas.
As reported last week, Plaquemines voters will join those in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes on decided if tolls should continue on the Crescent City Connection, barring a veto from Gov. Jindal. All Plaquemines delegation members supported allowing a vote of the people on November 6.