Capitol Views: Author rejects cap on tuition rebate bill, while parole bill passes the House and retirement bills are postponed

The Senate today put a $300 million cap on a bill to grant refundable tax credits to those who contribute to nonprofits providing private-school scholarships to public-school students. But the author, Republican Rep. Kirk Talbot of River Ridge, would not accept it and got the House to reject the amendments and send House Bill 696 to conference committee.

Democrats argued that a cap would serve to control the scholarship program from getting out of hand and draining the state budget. Talbot argued that each such rebate saves the state money because it would amount to less than the Minimum Foundation Program allotment for each public school student.

Talbot said he would not sign a conference committee report that included a cap. The speaker seemed to support him by appointing a conference committee of Talbot, Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, and Ways & Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette. A House member called out, “That’s a stacked deck.”

—A person convicted of shoplifting as a third offense, after receiving probation on the first two convictions, could be sentenced to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole under the state’s habitual offender statute. A bill that passed the House today would offer parole eligibility to such inmates and others serving life sentences, without eligibility of parole, for nonviolent or sexual offenders.

The House passed HB 543, which author Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, called “the bill of hope,” by 86-9. Depending on the age of inmates, the youngest would have to serve 25 years; the oldest, 10 years.

“This is not being soft on crime. It is being smart on crime,” Smith told the House. Her sentiments were echoed in committee last week by Angola Warden Burl Cain, who said the prison receives about 10 inmates per month who would be covered by the bill, thus increasing the constant pressure of overcrowding. He said that prisoners with no hope of parole often become disciplinary problems.

An amendment by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, to require a blanket 25-year term, regardless of age, failed.

Smith succeeded last year in passing a bill to offer parole eligibility to nonviolent offenders over age 60.

—Similar to the fast track for the governor’s major education bills, three major retirement bills were up for final Senate passage today; but the author Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, told members he wanted to hold off and present them next week.

The bill raising the most questions in committee, initially to raise the retirement eligibility age to 67, was amended heavily and reported as a substitute bill, Senate Bill 749. It now sets up a sliding scale of age eligibility depending on years of service along with a new two-tiered benefit structure.

Other Guillory retirement bills up for final passage would increase the employee contribution rate from 8% to 11%, with the increase going to pay down the unfunded accrued liability, and would recalculate benefits based on the average of five years of highest salary, compared to the current three years.

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