St. Charles Herald-Guide

Year ahead crowded with unfinished business

Special to the Herald-Guide - January 4, 2013

By John Maginnis

With no elections in 2013 nor much in the way of bold new initiatives put forward by anybody, the stateís agenda for the new year is crowded nonetheless with the unfinished business of the old.

Gov. Bobby Jindal may not be messing with the details, as he will be flying about the country a lot again this year, this time as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. But how he and his administration complete what they started last year in education and health care, as well as how they come to terms with nagging budget woes, largely will frame Jindalís overall record as governor. After this year, if not this year, it will grow harder and harder to get anything big done.

Getting the voucher expansion and tenure changes through the Legislature proved to be much easier than getting them out of court. Whatever the final outcomes of legal challenges from teacher unions and school boards, Jindalís voucher program, began in 2008, will live on. At stake is who will pay for it.

In 2012, the governor got legislators to approve an ingenious if not constitutional scheme to shift much of the financial burden for vouchers to local school districts without, technically, using local tax money. Brilliant! A district judge in Baton Rouge, a Republican, saw through it, however, and declared the funding mechanism unconstitutional. Assuming the state Supreme Court can read as well the plain English of the constitution, the state will have to shoulder the scholarship expense itself, without diversion of local funds.

Even so, those vouchers might not be available in certain school districts, after a federal judge ruled they and the toughening of tenure rules interfered with his desegregation order in Tangipahoa Parish. With about half of the stateís school districts under similar orders, if the ruling is not overturned on appeal, the governorís sweeping education reforms could become a patchwork affair. That could make them even more vulnerable to a legislative counteroffensive aimed at chipping away at what he already has taken credit for politically.

The sweeping, rapid transformation of the state hospital system was not on last yearís agenda, until Congress put it there in June by slashing Medicaid funding to the state.

That forced the administration into an ongoing scramble to piece together partnerships by which private and community hospitals would run the ten LSU hospitals across the state. Three tentative deals have been announced, and more are in the works. But to be resolved is how will the new partners be paid for treating uninsured patients living near the poverty line.

The obvious answer is for the governor to accept the expansion of Medicaid within the federal Affordable Care Act, which he so far has refused to do. He is calling on the president to negotiate on giving the states more flexibility in running their Medicaid programs. The president, of course, is tied up with more pressing negotiations with Congress at the moment, and may or may not get back to Jindal later. Something is going to have to give, and soon, before the governorís bold new vision for health care becomes clear to anyone else.

At the higher end of the education, the administration would consider it progress to stop the bleeding of college budgets, which have taken the brunt of spending cuts, including perennial mid-year cuts, for five years. The blows are softened only by sharing the pain with students and their families through steadily rising tuition costs.

With the governor holding the line against increasing tax revenues, prospects are dim for halting the further decline of higher education in Louisiana, which, if not addressed soon, will count against Jindalís record.

The one big initiative proposed, to overhaul the tax code, has garnered limited interest due to the governorís insistence on it not raising any new money. In the coming session, some legislators are bound to challenge his stance by pushing to temporarily suspend some tax exemptions, which the governor cannot veto.

Doing so would require a fair number of Republicans to team up with Democrats to cross the line drawn by Jindal. The odds, as always, would be against those challenging the governor. But the chance remains the outcome could be among the top political stories of 2013.