Bill to improve infrastructure funding elicits emotional responses in Louisiana Senate

Sen. Rick Ward pushed for extending a portion of the state sales tax to pay for roads and bridges (Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Senate).

Published: June 2, 2021

By: Matthew Bennett | LSU Manship School News Service

Sen. Rick Ward (R-Port Allen) sat before the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday with tears in his eyes advocating a bill that he thinks could keep his loved ones from moving out of Louisiana.

After pulling out a large painting of his family to show his fellow representatives and choking on a few words, Ward said, “I know roads and infrastructure is not something to get emotional about, but that’s not the part I get emotional about. I don’t want to see them leave here. It’s time that we do something.”

The Senate Finance Committee passed the bill 7-4 Wednesday in a vote that also set off a lot of other emotions in the Legislature, especially from critics in both parties.

The controversy comes in that the bill, HB 514, would indefinitely extend a 0.45 percent sales tax that the Legislature passed in 2018 as a temporary stopgap to solve a budget crisis. The extension, which was tacked onto a marijuana tax bill late in the session, would keep that part of the sales tax from expiring in 2025 and dedicate the money from it to roads and bridges.

Ward repeatedly defended the bill as the most effective way to raise and commit state revenue to improving Louisiana’s infrastructure at a “four to one return on investment for construction dollars as we spend them.”

Ward said the bill tax would create $350 million per year directed only toward fixing roads and bridges.

If the Legislature kills the bill, the 0.45 percent sales tax would be lowered back down to 0.4 percent in 2025.

Read more at BR Proud

Tax relief for women advances

Published: June 2, 2021
By: Ryan Nelsen | LSU Manship School News Service

Three bills that focus on tax relief for women moved through a state Senate committee Wednesday.

The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee advanced the bills, which had already been approved by the House. The bills now head to the Senate floor.

House Bill 7, sponsored by New Orleans Democratic Rep. Aimee Freeman, would end state sales tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers for adults and children. Freeman has labeled the bill as “ending the pink tax,” as the financial burden of buying these products disproportionately affects women.

LIFT Louisiana, a women’s advocacy group, supported the bill, noting that Louisiana leads the nation in single-family households led by women. The group called the taxation of these products “an unnecessary and immoral financial burden.”

The bill is now in its fifth year in the legislature. It was originally carried by former Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. The bill has support from groups on both sides of the aisle, including the Feminist Majority of Louisiana and Louisiana Right to Life.

“I believe this is part of healthcare for women and children, especially for those who live on a very tight budget,” said Freeman.

A concern voiced by state Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, was that the bill would cost the state $10.5 million in tax revenue.

Freeman responded: “To me, $10.5 million, which is only .01% of the entire budget, is a worthwhile exemption for the women and children of Louisiana.”

The state sales tax is currently 4.45%, but local parishes and cities add their own sales taxes on top of that. The committee amended the bill to give municipalities the option of enacting the exemption.

Read more at The Advocate

Bill to limit legal immunity for police who use excessive force fails in Louisiana Senate committee

Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, testified before Sen. Gary Smith and the Senate Judiciary B Committee Tuesday (Photo by Ryan Nelsen/LSU Manship School News Service).

Published: June 1, 2021

By: Ryan Nelsen | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE—A bill that would limit the legal immunity for Louisiana police officers who use excessive force failed to pass through a Senate judiciary committee Tuesday.

Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, authored HB 609, which would give civil judges a list of factors to determine whether a law officer had used force reasonably.

The bill had passed the House 53-42, but was thwarted in the Senate Judiciary B Committee, 4-2. The bill had the support of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and was part of a broader package of changes in policing that had been recommended by a bipartisan task force.

Several police officers spoke Tuesday against the measure.

“I’m simply not going to work without qualified immunity,” said Michael Carter, the Shreveport Police Officers Association president. “I don’t make enough money to pay malpractice insurance. Doctors do.”

Qualified immunity was created to shield government officials from being held personally liable for violating the Constitution. The law dates back to the late 1960s and was meant to protect officials from lawsuits related to their job duties.

Jordan, an attorney, detailed how difficult it is to charge a police officer for unreasonable conduct. He told the committee that once a suit is filed against a police officer, the defense will automatically ask for qualified immunity. Then a judge will have to decide if the conduct is unreasonable or unconstitutional. For judges to disqualify the exemption, they have to find a case with matching facts.

To show how improbable this is, Jordan talked about a pregnant woman in Seattle who was tased three times and was forced to lie on her stomach during a traffic stop. The court declared the officers’ actions to be unconstitutional, but because there was never a case that showed that tasing a pregnant woman was a violation, the officers were exonerated.

Read more at BR Proud

Non-unanimous jury relief bill fails in committee

Published: May 27, 2021

By: Ryan Nelsen | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE—A bill to allow 1,500 prisoners who faced non-unanimous juries a chance for parole or other relief failed Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill, HB346, was written by the chairman of the committee, Rep. Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace. It won all four Democrats’ support but failed to sway any Republicans. It failed with a 7-4 vote and was voluntarily deferred by Gaines.

“Shame on y’all,” someone shouted as the large crowd gathered to watch the bill left the room.

Over an hour and a half of testimonies were given in support of the bill, from people who faced incarceration from non-unanimous juries and from people who served on them. No opposition to the bill was given.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Will Harrell, the senior policy counsel at Voice of the Experienced, a group that lobbies for changes in the criminal justice system. 

Harrell read from a letter from Paul Goins, an inmate counsel at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. The letter urged the committee to do away with, as Goins put it, “what we all know is a racially motivated system.” 

Louisiana was one of only two states – the other was Oregon – that for many decades allowed non-unanimous jury convictions in serious felony cases. Louisiana voters approved a measure in 2018 to ban 10-2 guilty verdicts, and require all 12 jurors to be unanimous, going forward.

Read more at BIZ Magazine

Bill to bring broadband access statewide passed by Senate committee

Published: May 27, 2021

By: Emily Wood | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. — A bill that would establish a grant program to create broadband access in communities around the state passed through a Senate committee on Wednesday.

“This legislation would lead to better access to healthcare, education and quality jobs,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Daryl Deshotel, R-Marksville.

Rep. Daryl Deshotel
Rep. Daryl Deshotel, R-Marksville

The Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities (GUMBO) program would use over $180 million in federal funds to provide broadband and internet access to 400,000 households in Louisiana.

Private and public service providers would apply to the GUMBO program to receive funding for the creation of broadband infrastructure in unserved communities around the state.

In the past year, the Louisiana Legislature created the Louisiana Office of Broadband and Connectivity as well as provided tax-exemptions on broadband equipment and supplies.

Veneeth Iyengar, the director of the Office of Broadband and Connectivity, said that the digital divide is broken up into three gaps: access, affordability and digital literacy. He said some parts of the state have different needs when it comes to those gaps.

Read more at The Daily Iberian

Voting, election bills advance through House, Senate committees

Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, spoke about her bill to require an audit for the state’s election processes.(Credit: Emily Wood/ LSU Manship School News Service)
Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, spoke about her bill to require an audit for the state’s election processes.(Credit: Emily Wood/ LSU Manship School News Service)

Published: May 26, 2021

By: Emily Wood, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Wire) – Seven bills and one House resolution about voting and elections advanced through the House and Senate committees on governmental affairs Wednesday.

The resolution, sponsored by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, provides criteria for considering redistricting plans to draw boundaries for seats in Congress and the state Legislature based on 2020 Census information.

Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, speaking on behalf of Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, said that a joint group that drafted the resolution used the rules for redistricting from 10 years ago as a guiding point.

The criteria include compliance with the Voting Rights Act, respecting recognized political boundaries and natural geography of the state and keeping districts substantially equal.

Rep. Wilford Carter Sr., D-Lake Charles, expressed his concerns that racial demographics were not taken into consideration in the resolution. African Americans are concerned that while they make up 30% of the state’s population, they can only realistically win one of the seven congressional seats based on how the districts are now drawn.

But Stefanski pointed to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th and 15th Amendments in the United States Constitution included in the resolution.

“We are going to follow the law, we are going to follow the numbers and we are going to draw the fairest maps we can,” said Stefanski, who chairs the House Governmental Affairs Committee, which will oversee the process.

The resolution passed favorably without opposition and will move to the House floor.

Read more at KALB

How will federal relief money will be divided in Louisiana?

Louisiana State Capitol building in Baton Rouge
Louisiana State Capitol building in Baton Rouge

Published: May 25, 2021

By: Ryan Nelsen | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Wire) – Louisiana is one step closer to using the federal money it is receiving from the American Rescue Plan after a bill by legislative leaders passed the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday.

The American Rescue Plan is a $1.88 trillion federal aid package, which gives each state a minimum of $500 million to offset the economic downfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Louisiana will receive $5.18 billion in direct aid to state and local governments.

“We’ve tried to make the highest and best use of the dollars that are available to us, balancing these different pots of money,” Jay Dardenne, the commissioner of administration, told the committee.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez, wrote the bill, HB642, along with Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. The bill also will help improve infrastructure.

The bill received unanimous approval from the House Chamber and will now head to the Senate floor. It divides up the money and sets rules along these lines:

Louisiana Loggers Relief Fund – $10 million

Under the bill, timber harvesting and hauling businesses can apply for grants up to $25,000 if they meet the criteria for the Louisiana Main Street Recovery fund.

In June 2020, the Legislature created the fund to disperse $275 million in relief for small businesses. The program gave grants of up to $15,000 to more than 20,000 businesses across the state.

The grants are only awarded to companies with less than 50 employees that were in Louisiana as of March 1, 2020. The businesses must have experienced a gross revenue loss of 10% or greater in 2020 compared to 2019.

Read more at KALB

With 77% of LSU employees vaccinated, faculty members hope to implement student vaccine requirements

Published: May 25, 2021

By: Adrian Dubose, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — With about 77 percent of LSU employees vaccinated, university faculty members are pushing for student vaccinations as well.

University records indicate that 3,988 out of the 5,164 faculty and staff on the Baton Rouge campus have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Hundreds of LSU faculty members voted Tuesday for a resolution calling on the university to require students to receive COVID-19 vaccines before returning in the fall.

A preliminary vote count showed the resolution passing with 88% of the votes at a meeting that was held online and attended by professors and members of the public.

LSU officials were checking the roughly 650 votes to eliminate any not cast by full-time faculty members. They expected to have a final vote tally on Wednesday.

The resolution was sponsored by 10 faculty members, and it followed similar votes by the LSU faculty and student senates to mandate vaccines.

In the resolution, faculty members said they recognized that there could be legal questions about requiring COVID vaccines before the Food and Drug Administration gives permanent approval to them.

So far, the vaccines have been distributed under emergency use authorizations. The faculty members want LSU to add the vaccines to the list of required vaccinations and immunizations for all students as soon as the FDA gives them full approval.

Read more at WBRZ

Legislature focuses on safety of women

Published: May 25, 2021

By: Emily Wood | LSU Manship School News Service

Aimee Freeman
Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, spoke about her bill that would remove the notarization requirement on a temporary restraining order. The health and safety of women has emerged as a significant theme in the 2021 legislative session, and five bills, two House resolutions and one Senate resolution dealing with these issues advanced on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. Photo by Louisiana House

The health and safety of women has emerged as a significant theme in this year’s legislative session, and five bills, two House resolutions and one Senate resolution dealing with these issues advanced on Tuesday.

Two instruments focus on domestic abuse. House Bill 159, sponsored by Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, would provide a clear definition for domestic abuse, and House Bill 55, sponsored Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, would remove the notarization requirement on a temporary restraining order.

The recent mishandling of sexual assault allegations against multiple student athletes at Louisiana State University has prompted legislators to address women’s health and safety issues.

Multiple female legislators critiqued LSU’s handling of the allegations in a joint committee hearing in March, and they vowed to make dramatic changes.

Helena Moreno, a New Orleans city councilwoman and a former state representative, and survivors of domestic violence spoke in support of White’s bill in the Senate Judiciary A Committee.

Senate Bill 133, sponsored by Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, advanced through the House Committee on Health and Welfare. The bill would require the Louisiana Department of Health to serve as a resource for addressing health care disparities for women and vulnerable populations in Louisiana.

“Black women are more likely to die while giving birth in the state of Louisiana than white women are, and we want to continue to make sure we close that gap,” said Kimberly Hood, assistant secretary for the Louisiana Office of Public Health.

Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, questioned why addressing health care disparities among a population that makes up over 50% of Louisiana’s broader population is not a part of the health department’s integral mission.

Read more at The Advocate

Senate resolution to study banning corporal punishment clears House

Published: May 25, 2021

By: Emily Wood| LSU Manship School News Service

Jason Hughes
Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, explained on Tuesday, May 25, 2021 his resolution to request literacy coaches in grades K-2 for students reading below grade level. Photo credit: Louisiana House.

A resolution asking the Louisiana Department of Education to study the likelihood of banning corporal punishment in public schools passed the House 60-34 Tuesday.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 18 was sponsored by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, and had passed unanimously in the Senate.

But it prompted some disagreement in the House, mainly over questions of local control.

“I think the local school boards and local district should make decisions on this, not someone in Baton Rouge, so I cannot support this.” said Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall.

House Concurrent Resolution 11, sponsored by Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, requests that the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop a plan to provide literacy coaches for students reading below grade level in grades K-2.

Read more at The Advocate