Should members of the LSU Board of Supervisors disclose who receives their scholarships?|
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|Regular session begins Monday|
With the Legislature scheduled to convene the 2009 regular session on Monday, state Sen. Mike Walsworth said lawmakers will tackle a number of issues, but one issue in particular will rise above all others.
"Without a doubt, the budget will be the single biggest issue of the session," said Walsworth, R-West Monroe. "The budget is our priority."
The Legislature will entertain a more than $26 billion budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed steep cuts in higher education and health care spending to help offset an anticipated $1.3-billion revenue shortfall.
The revenue shortfall was brought about by a drop in oil prices. Sharply lower oil prices produced a decline in severance taxes generated by the oil and gas industry. Also, corporate tax collections as well as sales tax collections are down in light of a global recession.
Walsworth said declining state revenues would force the Legislature to deal with "very real" cuts to critical programs and services.
Among those cuts, Walsworth said higher education would be one of the areas hardest hit by proposed cuts, but he said local lawmakers will work hard to stave off the proposed cuts.
"We're going to look at a lot of options and try, if we can, to minimize the impact to our universities," Walsworth said.
One possible solution some lawmakers have suggested to help balance the budget would entail raiding the state's economic development mega-fund. The mega-fund has a balance of some $400 million. Money from the mega-fund is used for economic development efforts.
Walsworth cautioned against tapping the mega-fund. He supports using the fund for what it was intended to be used for – economic development.
"Obviously the mega-fund is going to contract a bit," Walsworth said. "I'm hoping there still will be one and am confident there will be, but probably not as robust as it is now."
Both Walsworth and his colleague, Sen. Bob Kostelka, said they expect opposition to Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposal to utilize some $50 million in mega-fund monies for Foster Farms to buy Pilgrim's Pride's chicken plant in Union Parish.
"We're going to have pushback from south Louisiana for the governor's use of the mega-fund for the Pilgrim's Pride plant," said Kostelka, R-Monroe. "But like I've said before, this is our Katrina and we don't have FEMA here to bail us out."
Kostelka said he will push for passage of an education reform bill he co-authored with State Rep. Jim Fannin of Jackson Parish.
Kostelka's bill would mandate the addition of a second-tier high school diploma for students who do not plan to attend college. Kostelka said the bill would curtail the number of dropouts annually.
"We have between 16,000 and 23,000 dropouts each year, with no technical training and no job skills," Kostelka said. "Eighty percent don't intent to go to college and that's why they drop out."
Under Kostelka's proposal, high schools would be mandated to offer technical and professional training so that students, when they graduate, would be prepared to enter the workforce.
"That's why industries aren't coming," Kostelka said. "We don't have a technically trained workforce."
Kostelka envisions courses in welding, small engine repair, agriculture and construction to be offered at the high school level to better prepare students to find jobs.
"Most of the jobs we need in the workforce do not require college," Kostelka said. "They require technical training."
One other major issue the Legislature will face in the regular session is a proposal to raise the state's Homestead Exemption from $75,000 to $150,000.
Walsworth said he opposes the measure because no one has presented a viable plan to offset the loss in revenue for the state.
Under the current system, any decrease in residential property tax revenues must be offset by increases in property taxes on business and industry.
"There's no need to raise it because we've already got the highest Homestead Exemption in America," Walsworth said. "That's good enough."