Tobacco settlement bonds refinanced

Notes from the Legislature’s regular session

BATON ROUGE (AP) — The State Bond Commission signed off Thursday on a refinancing of Louisiana’s tobacco settlement bonds that will take advantage of low interest rates and generate more than $60 million to plug into next year’s budget.

The dollars were included in the 2013-14 budget under negotiation by lawmakers to help pay for the state’s free college tuition program called TOPS, so passage was needed to keep the $25 billion spending plan in balance.

The only opposition on the Bond Commission came from its chairman, Treasurer John Kennedy. “I think we’re doing the right thing here, but I believe we’re picking the wrong structure,” he said.

Kennedy said Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration pushed for a refinancing that generates all the savings upfront to plug budget holes. He said the state could save more by stretching out the savings over many years.

The state will save an estimated $144 million over three years.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols has disagreed that another refinancing structure could offer significantly more savings.

Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, said it was too risky to spread out the savings because tobacco use is declining nationwide as taxes are increased and new restrictions are added. “We need to take the upfront savings, rather than over the life of it,” he said.

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Lawmakers gave final, unanimous passage Thursday to the creation of a “parent trigger” law for poor-performing schools in the Recovery School District.

The measure (House Bill 115) by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, will let parents petition the state-run RSD to return a school back to local control if that school has earned a “D” or “F” grade from the state for five consecutive years.

It would take parents of a majority of the students signing the petition. Students must have been attending the school for at least two years in order for their parents to sign.

The Recovery School District is run by the state Department of Education to manage chronically low-performing schools. It currently operates 80 schools around the state, including 68 in New Orleans and eight in Baton Rouge.

Lawmakers sent the bill to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk with a 98-0 vote of the House and 39-0 vote of the Senate.

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A bid to centralize and strengthen efforts to collect back-owed debts to state agencies, in hopes of bolstering revenue for the state treasury, received backing from lawmakers and heads to Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Estimates are the measure could generate as much as $200 million over five years.

The bill will create a new debt recovery office in the Department of Revenue and give it the authority to revoke and suspend state-issued licenses for back debts, among other things. It will require agencies to refer all their delinquent accounts to either the attorney general’s office or the debt recovery office for collection.

Lawmakers said Louisiana has been too lax in seeking payment for back-owed debts, which are pegged at $1.4 billion.

A compromise version of the bill (House Bill 629) by Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, won final passage with a 95-0 vote of the House and 37-1 vote of the Senate.

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A West Monroe lawmaker’s bid to cut down on exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke couldn’t get final passage even though it was watered down through the process.

As reworked by the Senate, Rep. Frank Hoffmann’s proposal (House Bill 111) would have prohibited smoking within 25 feet of the entrances to state-owned office buildings, not including public college campuses.

The House voted 95-2 for a final compromise version of the bill, but it never came up for a vote in the Senate, stalling it on the calendar when the legislative session ended Thursday.

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