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Our Views: Slow rise for TOPS PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, May 08 2014 - 11:56 am


If it does not exactly rein in the costs of the popular TOPS tuition grants, a bill by Sen. Jack Donahue makes a few sensible changes that will save the taxpayers some money.

The relatively low academic requirements were always a problem in the program now known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. The idea of Donahue, R-Mandeville, is to level up the requirements, modestly and over a period of time.

As chairman of the Finance Committee, Donahue is one of the senators with the most responsibility for sorting out the annual difficulties of the state budget. So he is better informed about the rising impact of TOPS on the general fund.

It is an entitlement program. If you meet the academic requirements, you get the tuition waiver.

If it does not pay the full cost of a Louisiana college education, it’s still a nice thing to have. But it is costing the state north of $220 million a year, a vast sum compared with the promises made back in the 1990s about its limited budgetary impact.

The prospect of up to a $300 million hit to the state general fund in the next five years is one scenario that has played out in briefings before Senate Finance. Donahue has a right to be worried.

Donahue’s Senate Bill 520 would increase the minimum grade-point average for an award from only 2.5 to 2.75, and a score of 21 instead of 20 on the ACT admissions test. It would not start until the 2017-18 school year, so people get plenty of warning.

This is just not much to write home about, perhaps, but it’s more courageous than most politicians are.

Where Donahue would tighten up more would be in the higher “performance award” cash category for students with better ACT scores. Those would increase to 25 from 23, and the “honor award” to 29 from 27.

Neither change strikes us as particularly Draconian.

We hope that Donahue’s bill gets a respectful hearing. Far too often, legislators refuse to face the financial implications of a popular program.

Donahue would dedicate a portion of the budgetary savings to the Louisiana Go Grant Program, which helps students in financial need go to college. TOPS is, in government-speak, not “means-tested.”Because students from more affluent families get a better start in life and in education, they tend to get the most benefits of an entitlement like TOPS.

Yet, we don’t think this should be a class-warfare discussion. Good students earn TOPS, if the standards are increased, as Donahue proposes. In a perfect world, the increases in gpa and so forth could be higher, in our view. But for the moment, Donahue’s responsible approach to this issue should get support from lawmakers in both chambers and the governor, if the bill gets to his desk.


Senate rejects limits on use of unmanned aircraft PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, April 22 2014 - 11:39 am

BY MICHELLE MILLHOLLON | The new orleans advocate

The state Senate rejected legislation Monday that would restrict the use of unmanned aircraft in Louisiana.

Senate Bill 330 — which died with 15 voting for it and 21 voting against it — was an attempt to sync Louisiana law with evolving technology.

Other states already have adopted legislation addressing drones. The Federal Aviation Administration is trying to figure out how drones can coexist with commercial airplanes.

Internet marketplace Amazon is exploring the idea of using drones to make deliveries. Google just outmaneuvered Facebook to snap up Titan Aerospace, which manufactures drones.

SB330 aimed to curtail the use of drones on private property for surveillance. It generally would be legal for Homeland Security and law enforcement officials to use drones for legitimate purposes. A number of other exemptions would exist, including using a satellite to capture images for mapping and allowing the property owner to give consent. Civil and criminal penalties would come into play for violators.

“Technology has overrun the law,” state Sen. Dan Claitor told his colleagues in the Senate chamber Monday night.

State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Jeanerette, successfully amended the bill to add in another exemption. Images captured for farming purposes would be OK.

Allain said drones are going to be important for agricultural research. He revealed that he owns a drone.

The Senate adopted Allain’s amendment but balked at an exemption for news gathering purposes. Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, offered the media exemption but admitted he wasn’t thrilled about it.

Other legislators also expressed displeasure.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said the amendment would allow photographs to be taken of private homes. He said legislators would be legalizing the types of images found in “repulsive” supermarket tabloids.

“Yes, that’s a possibility,” agreed Claitor, who added that what was envisioned was allowing the media to use drones for legitimate news gathering, such as covering bank robberies.

Claitor then joked that the media could even use drones to photograph congressmen, making an obvious dig at U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister. McAllister, R-Swartz, is weathering a media frenzy after his own surveillance camera captured him kissing a married aide.

State Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, asked Claitor if he even planned to vote in favor of the amendment.

“I’m going to vote for my own amendment, but that doesn’t mean you have to vote for it,” Claitor told him.

The Senate rejected the amendment and moved to the legislation itself.

State Rep. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, faced Claitor at the podium on the Senate floor and began raising concerns. Appel said Claitor could be making Google Maps illegal.

Claitor said Google could continue to map cities as long as it uses satellites to do so. He asked Appel to imagine Google’s street-level, camera-mounted cars driving through a back yard and taking photographs.

“You wouldn’t dream of walking into my backyard uninvited. Just because you can do that with a drone, doesn’t mean you should be able to do it,” Claitor said.

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State Senate Approves St. Tammany Levee District Bill PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, April 15 2014 - 12:00 am


By: Robert Rhoden, | The Times-Picayune

The state Senate has approved a bill that would create the St. Tammany Levee, Drainage and Conservation District and establish the parish as a separate levee district taxing authority. The bill by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, was approved 37-0 without discussion Monday afternoon.

The bill will now move on to the House of Representatives.

With the creation of the levee district, St. Tammany would withdraw from the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.

Parish President Pat Brister has said it's in the parish's best interest to have its own levee district and decide what projects need to be done to protect the parish. She has complained that of the $14.5 billion spent on levee and drainage projects by the federal government in the New Orleans area since 2005, none of the money was spent on north shore projects.

Brister acknowledges that the parish has not contributed money to the Southeast Louisiana Flood authority and the regional flood control efforts.

A St. Tammany Levee District exists on paper, but it has never been activated or funded.

Under the bill, the new levee district would have authority to issue bonds and levy taxes. A sales tax of up to 1 cent could be levied if approved by voters. The tax would not be subject to the combined rate limitation established in the state Constitution.

The district would be governed by a nine-member commission appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. At least four of the members must live in the unincorporated area of St. Tammany, Donahue said.


Mandeville - Area Bypass Road Moving Forward PDF Print E-mail
Friday, April 04 2014 - 11:57 am
By: James Hartman

With the collaboration of the City of Mandeville, Parish Government, Recreation District No. 1 and state Sen. Jack Donahue, plans to create a bypass road between Hwy. 59 and Hwy. 1088 are moving forward.


Earlier this week, Mandeville City Councilman At-Large Rick Danielson met with Parish President Pat Brister and representatives from Pelican Park to discuss the next steps in the project, which Danielson first proposed early last year.   The project is conceived to ease traffic flow and public safety between the two busy corridors, as well and providing a rear entrance to the Park.


"The City, Parish and Recreation District are all working closely with Sen. Jack Donahue to secure funding for the project and take necessary steps to develop plans for the roadway," Danielson said.  "While there are many steps to be taken, I think we're all determined to make the road a reality."


Donahue is working to secure a portion of the state's Capital Outlay Program budget during the current legislative Session.


"This is an important project that I believe will benefit the entire community," said Donahue.  "It's one of my priorities for local spending in the current Session, and I'm working to build necessary support in the Capitol."


Likewise, Brister said the work will alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety for area residents and the people who use Pelican Park.


"There are more than a million visits to Pelican Park each year, and we need to keep the park vital and the people safe," Brister said.  "We're working through this process, from the sale of land to the Parish by the State to surveying and engineering that will be necessary as we move forward.   My staff and I realize the importance and value of this proposal, and we want to make it happen as quickly as possible."


Danielson said alignment and survey work and environmental reviews could begin later this year.


"Not only will this improve quality of life for area residents and users of Pelican Park, but it will present a great opportunity for economic development once it's completed," Danielson said.

Louisiana House and Senate reach budget compromise; Jindal says he will sign off on plan PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, June 06 2013 - 9:29 am

By Jeff Adelson, | The Times-Picayune

Louisiana House and Senate negotiators have struck a deal on the state budget with less than 24 hours left in this year's legislative session. The final version of the $25 billion spending plan includes a pay increase for teachers and additional funding for school districts, a pair of bills aimed at overhauling the state's budget process in future years and a series of measures increasing revenues through trimming tax breaks and instituting a temporary tax amnesty.

The agreement has the support of the nine negotiators and Gov. Bobby Jindal, but has not yet been presented to the full membership of the chambers. Representatives said they would be bringing the plan to their delegations Wednesday night and were optimistic that a budget would be approved by the end of the session at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The deal retains many of the key proposals by many of the groups in the House, including Democrats, a group of Republicans known as the fiscal hawks and the Legislative Black Caucus

"We achieved the principal goals of each of those groups," Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards of Amite said.

The session has seen the House take a leading role in the budget discussions, first by brokering a bipartisan compromise between its various factions that yielded a budget that eliminated non-recurring revenues in favor of the trims to tax breaks and spending cuts. When the Senate heavily altered the plan Sunday, House membersrejected those changes and worked on an alternative proposal.

Essentially all the demands the House have made since receiving the Senate's version of the budget have been met.

About $68 million will be directed toward local school districts, half of which will be earmarked for raises for certified classroom teachers. The districts will be able to decide how it spends the rest of the money.

Both Jindal and Edwards, who has announced plans to run to succeed the governor in 2015, praised the inclusion of that money.

"This is a very good investment," Jindal said.

While that money now amounts to a one-time bump, Jindal pledged that he would work with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to include the same amount in the formula used to calculate state support for school districts in future years.

One the other side of the education issue, the budget also retains funding for an expansion of the voucher program from about 4,000 students to about 8,500.

The budget also includes revenue from a series of changes to tax credit programs, such as the Enterprise Zone and tax credits for solar energy systems, aimed at boosting the amount of money in state coffers. That will come on top of a short-term infusion of cash through a multi-year amnesty for delinquent tax payers.

The changes to the tax credit programs, however, will be offset by new tax credits this session. Jindal said Wednesday that he would have no problem signing those bills so long as the total amount of revenue to the state did not increase.

Two measures promoted by the fiscal hawks to change future budgetary procedures, who have opposed the use of one-time money in the budget, will also be passed as part of the overall plan. Those measures would give lawmakers a better idea of what areas of the budget they can adjust, as opposed to the areas that are off-limits because of legal restrictions, and would require a more thorough review of state revenue.

Overall, Jindal praised the budget itself, ticking off the increase for school districts, a lack of tax increases and the failure of bills that would have forced the state to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. Some lawmakers had argued expanding Medicaid, a move Jindal has opposed on concerns it would cost the state down the line, would help the state's budget problems but the measures that would have allowed that were shot down in both chambers.

"I want to praise both legislative branches for working very hard" on the budget, Jindal said.

The final spending plan falls short of the fiscal hawk's goal of eliminating all one-time money in the state budget. Representatives said they the proposal contained about $30 million to $100 million in one-time money and are awaiting an analysis for legislative staff.

Earlier in the day Rep. Brett Geymann, a leader of the fiscal hawks, said that while the use of any one-time money in the budget would generate opposition from some members of his group, the passage of the budget reform bills was enough of a win
to get general support for the package.

"It's a victory for in the passage of these bills right now," he said.

Throughout the day Wednesday, lawmakers held occasionally heated private meetings and negotiations aimed at bridging the gap between the two budgets, lawmakers said. Much of the animosity of those exchanges could be due to frayed nerves at the end of the session rather than significant disagreements over policy, Geymann said.

Still, Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said he was remaining cautiously optimistic "until we're all hugging and patting each other on the back that we got a budget out of here."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, said praised the House for doing a "good job crafting their bill" and argued that the changes made through the Senate process made it a better budget.

The final budget package is a significantly different than Jindal's initial proposal and Edwards argued the effort showed the power of the coalition that had been built. While that group has significant ideological differences on many issues, Edwards said he expected more cooperation between the sides in future sessions.

"Clearly it's not possible on every issue but on some of the larger, overarching interests, sure," Edwards said.

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