BATON ROUGE—BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Tax breaks are stalled. Budget cuts are under negotiation. And bans on smoking in bars, hand-held cell phone use while driving and dental work at schools are awaiting their fate.
Very little is decided as the Legislature's regular session nears its halfway mark Tuesday.
Only one bill has made its way to the governor's desk so far, a measure that rewrote the rules of an economic development fund so Gov. Bobby Jindal could use $50 million from the fund for his deal to reopen a chicken plant in north Louisiana.
With under five weeks left to go, all the big money matters remain to be decided - following the trend of regular sessions year after year. But while this session was designed largely to deal with financial matters, lawmakers also are grappling with an array of controversial proposals that go far beyond the budget and taxes.
Battles are under way between lawmakers and the Jindal administration over stimulus money, budget cuts, tax break delays and access to the governor's records.
The centerpiece of the session is the $27.9 billion state budget proposed for the new year that begins July 1. The proposal contains deep cuts to public colleges and health services and slashes more than 3,500 state government jobs.
Lawmakers are trying to balance the budget with the loss of $1.3 billion in state general fund revenue.
But the budget debate is part of a larger chess game at the Capitol. Legislation awaiting decisions could either drain more dollars from state coffers or raise the amount of revenue available to offset cuts.
Lawmakers have proposed tax breaks with hefty price tags, but none of significant cost have gotten out of the tax committees - House Ways and Means and Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs. Both panels have heard hours of testimony but not acted on many bills.
"The picture is not very bright at this point," Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee said of the state's financial situation. "We have to be conscientious."
House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, said he expects a package of tax breaks to move forward in the House, but he said they will have small, manageable price tags.
"The mega-ones of 200, 300 and 400 million dollars aren't coming out," Tucker said.
Instead, what has gained traction in the Senate is a proposal to delay a planned tax cut for middle- and upper-income taxpayers who itemize charitable donations, home mortgage interest and certain medical costs on their state tax forms.
The full Senate will debate the measure, which has the backing of Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, and a bipartisan group of Senate leaders. The senators want to use the $118 million generated by stalling the tax break to stop cuts planned for higher education.
"For the state's immediate and long-term future, it is clear that we cannot allow budget cuts that will do irreparable harm to our colleges and universities, institutions that are the engine that powers the creation of jobs and businesses in Louisiana," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, said in a statement.
The bill faces steep opposition from Jindal, who has threatened to veto it. Tucker also said he thinks it would be difficult to get House backing for the plan.
Other ideas to offset budget cuts have had little luck. A cigarette tax hike proposed by Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, remains stuck in committee, and attempts to raid the economic development "mega-fund" also haven't gone anywhere, amid opposition from the governor.
Jindal's also fighting attempts to override his rejection of $98 million in federal stimulus money to expand unemployment benefits.
The House passed the override, though most House members said they didn't realize what they were approving because the language had been quietly slipped into a bill by Rep. Avon Honey, D-Baton Rouge.
Now, Jindal wants the Senate to kill the proposal, saying it would make businesses pay higher unemployment taxes. The governor said he'll veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
Beyond financial matters, a recurring dispute for Jindal involves the broad public records exemption his office has to shield records from the public. The exemption for Louisiana's governor, which has existed for decades, is more sweeping than the records exemption for nearly any other governor in the nation, and lawmakers want to change it.
"I told the governor we need to pass a bill. Status quo is not an option," Chaisson said.
Jindal, who campaigned on transparency in government, has proposed a measure that would open more of his documents to scrutiny. But it doesn't go nearly as far as several lawmakers want, and two Republican legislators complain it actually could allow other state government agencies to shield documents from public view with a protection they don't have today.
Other non-fiscal disputes this session:
-Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek's push to overhaul local school board laws faced trouble even before Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, filed the bills. Only one has escaped committee, a measure to get school boards out of hiring and firing decisions. It's future remains unclear amid staunch opposition from the boards.
-Rep. Ernest Wooton, R-Belle Chasse, returned with his proposal to allow concealed weapons on college campuses. It awaits debate on the House floor, but faces resistance from higher education leaders who successfully defeated it last year.
-Both the House and Senate have passed proposals to ease standardized testing requirements for struggling middle school students. Supporters say it would allow failing students to receive technical training and could keep students from becoming dropouts. Critics say it would give diplomas to students who aren't getting the basic reading, writing and math skills they should.
Meanwhile, lawmakers also are considering bills that would outlaw smoking in bars and casinos and prohibit talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving. A new dispute arising this session involves a bill by Rep. Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell, that would ban most mobile dental clinics at public schools.