Gov. Bobby Jindal went biblical in explaining to the House Appropriations Committee the need for a constitutional amendment to use tobacco payments to the TOPS program instead of continuing to put that money in a trust fund. “Jesus spoke to those who want to bury their talents in the ground,” says the governor, who wants to redirect about $45 million a year now going into the Millennium Trust Fund, now grown to $1.38 billion, to support the popular free college tuition program. The House committee passed HB 390 by Rep. Jane Smith, R-Bossier City, the day after the Senate Finance Committee passed an identical measure by Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego. The proposed amendment is retroactive to the tobacco settlement payment made in the current fiscal year, putting two years of payments, about $90 million, toward TOPS in the next budget. Since the Legislature has never failed to fully fund TOPS, the net effect of the measure would be to free up general fund dollars that had gone to TOPS for use in other parts of the budget. Despite their support of the measure, House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, and House Budget Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, say they felt “heartburn” on using that tobacco money in the budget before the people vote on the constitutional amendment this fall. The governor has included “more or less” language in the appropriations bill that would ensure the full funding of TOPS, but he does not say where money would be taken from if the amendment fails. Nonetheless, Tucker says he is confident it will pass.
—Promoting his proposed constitutional amendment to raise vehicle registration taxes to fund $3 billion in highway construction, Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, told the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday he had received “mixed signals” from the governor’s office. Jindal cleared that up in a meeting later that day, telling Downs he was flatly opposed to the funding plan. Downs voluntarily deferred his bill today in the House Transportation Committee. Thus ends a three-year effort by Downs and Driving Louisiana Forward, a group formed by road contractors, to produce a reliable funding stream to replace stimulus and surplus dollars for construction that have run out. Not seeking re-election, Downs told committee colleagues, “It will take another effort on another day from another one of you with different leadership.” Downs’ bill would have raised the private vehicle registration tax from $10 to $30 a year, with similar increases for commercial vehicles. Louisiana ranks 46th in the nation in private vehicle registration taxes and 44th for commercial vehicles.
(John Maginnis will publish a daily update on the legislative session at 3 p.m., available to LaPolitics Weekly subscribers on the Subscribers Only page at LaPolitics.com. You can register your user name and password on the Lapolitics home page.)