Carolyn Roy | News Editor
Sen. Louie Bernard says the reports of past visceral and vicious legislative sessions dissipated with the special session that ended last Thursday. “There was an effort to come together. There was a familiarity and perception of dialogue going on. My hats off to everyone for creating an atmosphere of working together.”
He credits House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez for the success of the session. Bernard outlined a number of bills that range from improving water quality in rural systems to a new way of voting. What started out as a request to assist Natchitoches Regional Medical Center turned into a concurrent resolution passed by both the Senate and House as its popularity grew across the Legislature. As more federal funds flow into the State, the resolution will focus on the most important problems and places the money should be spent.
“No matter what went right or wrong during the pandemic and hurricanes, we need to know what the problems were.” The resolution requires a recap and report of events during those troubling times with the Dept. of Health and Hospitals compiling those reports for review by December.
It will include a report of health care infrastructure needs and what investment needs to be made; identification of health care building capacity for emergency care response; expansion of the digital data infrastructure; strengthening the health care work force; and what measures will mitigate risks of critical infrastructure failure.
“Next year we will have more money and it should be spent for the most important problems.”
Bernard describes Senate Bill 9 as one that has created a tsunami of emotions throughout the state. It will require a centralized collection of sales tax. He believes it will streamline collections from out-of-state or remote vendors such as Amazon who do not rebate sales tax to the State. Louisiana and Colorado were the only states without centralized collections. Bernard uses Mississippi as an example of how it can increase the amount of sales tax collected. Before a centralized system, Mississippi collected $39 million from those remote vendors. With centralized collections, that increased to $389 million. “We can’t afford not to do it,” he says. He believes it will also enhance the process of tax collections for businesses coming to Lou
isiana since owners will only have to deal with one agency instead of one in every parish. Bernard says it is his understanding that local tax officials will still collect local taxes but report them to the State. He sees the centralized collections as focusing on the remote and online vendors. The issue will require a constitutional amendment that will not be on the ballot until October of 2022. That lapse will give the Legislature time to work out the details and allay fears that have surfaced.
The Legislature did not ignore the tourism industry that was so negatively impacted in 2020. In 2019, tourism produced $3.7 billion net income to the State and employed 242,000 people. HB 642 called for $60 million to tourism and $17.5 to tourism marketing from the American Rescue Plan.
As the state continues to battle low literacy, the Legislature increased the MFP funding by $18.7 million for a total of $3.9 billion. MFP is the public school funding of an average of $415 for each of 700,000 students. The funding will provide an annual raise of $800 for certified staff and $400 for non-certified for a total of $80 million. SB10 requires that students who turn 5 on or before Sept. 30 must enter kindergarten.
SB 211 provides a way for parents to appeal to the BESE board if their student is denied the chance to transfer from a D or F rated school. SB 148 provides funding for adults who want to attend a two-year institution to focus on obtaining a degree that prepares them for a high-paying job. If they qualify, they can receive $3,200 a year with a maximum of $6,400.
“It’s been one of the most revealing things I’ve seen,” Bernard says of SB 129. It provides a system for the La. Dept. of Health to rate rural water systems. If a system receives a D or an F, the department can prevent that water system from collecting money for water bills and that could shut down the system. “It will provide accountability to ensure quality water.”
The Legislature voted to use stimulus money to boost the unemployment claims fund. Before the pandemic, the fund was at a healthy $15 million but was depleted by claims during the pandemic. The legislature voted to put back $190 million. The outlook for rural roads and bridges remains ominous with a bill to fund them sitting on the governor’s desk.
Saying that Gov. John Bel Edwards doesn’t want to leave office with a deficit budget, Bernard won’t be surprised if he vetoes a bill by legislator Rick Ward since it would put a drain on the general fund. It calls for applying sales tax on autos for one year, about $300 million, for roads and bridges. “I go to bed and wake up thinking about roads and salvinia,” Bernard says. There is a $15 billion backlog on road and bridge projects. He says there is a generalization that La. DOTD has too many employees. He counters that with the fact that nine years ago, there were 9,872 employees compared to 3,842 today. “It’s not a matter of utilizing employees,” he says. “There’s just not enough money to cover the backlog.”
SB 221 is perplexing to Bernard who spent a long stent as clerk of court before being elected to the Senate. SB 221 provides for a voting commission to oversee the bidding process for buying new voting machines. No longer will voting be on electronic machines, but on machines with paper ballots that are scanned at the end of the day. “No more electronic machines,” he says. His major concern is the potential for delays in reporting results that before were reported within 90 minutes of the polls closing in most cases.
“Louisiana has been sucked into the vortex of hype and skepticism about elections that are no longer dependable…at the end of the day it will delay results.” While Bernard’s area is scheduled to receive Capital Outlay projects, they are subject to veto or not being signed by Gov. Edwards. He will report on those projects when the Governor’s action are finalized.