Court overturns Jindal achievements

OUR VIEW: As technology grows, so do threats around it
January 29, 2013
Letter: Understanding Bill of Rights and military arms important for all
January 29, 2013

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief education and retirement successes from the 2012 legislative session are being dismantled by state district judges, who have ruled in three separate cases that the Jindal administration didn’t follow the proper process for legislative passage.

Lawmakers warned Jindal’s office that the bills could face procedural problems as they were introduced and came up for votes, suggesting that the governor’s push to check off a list of legislative achievements might be running afoul of Louisiana’s constitution.

But Jindal administration leaders refused to heed the suggestions that they look again at constitutional and statutory provisions governing how bills become law in the Louisiana Legislature.

They got many of the legislative victories they sought, only to then run into a buzz saw of constitutional challenges that they have lost at the district court level.

Three different Baton Rouge judges across two months have thrown out key parts of the Republican governor’s signature accomplishments, which could lead to Jindal having to resubmit many of the ideas to lawmakers for another round of consideration.

Judge Tim Kelley ruled that the financing for Jindal’s voucher program that uses tax dollars to send students to private schools was unconstitutional because it was improperly funded through the public school financing formula.

Judge Michael Caldwell decided part of the governor’s education revamp dealing with changes to the authority of local school boards and superintendents was unconstitutional because too many items with differing objectives were crammed into one bill.

In the most recent ruling, Judge William Morvant ruled Jindal’s plan to shift future rank-and-file state workers to a 401(k)-style retirement plan was unconstitutional because it didn’t receive enough support from lawmakers.

All three judges made their decisions on purely procedural grounds. Each said he wasn’t commenting on the wisdom of the policy, but on the way it was handled.

“This has nothing to do with whether or not public funds can be used to support vouchers,” Kelley said before announcing his ruling Nov. 30.

”This is purely a matter of law,” Caldwell said of his Dec. 18 ruling. He added it was “not about the wisdom of what the act proposes to do.”

Before Morvant issued his decision Thursday, he called Jindal’s goal of trying to shrink the state’s retirement debt “a noble one.” He then declared the retirement bill invalid because it was passed without a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.

In other words, opponents of Jindal’s plans were successful because judges say the governor repeatedly didn’t follow basic provisions about how to pass measures through the Legislature.

Those mistakes, if higher court judges agree they were made and uphold the rulings, didn’t have to happen. Jindal received advice – and criticism – from lawmakers about how to pass the bills that would have met the requirements outlined by the three different judges.

In each instance, it would have been more difficult to pass the education and retirement measures without running into the constitutional issues outlined by the Baton Rouge-based judges, requiring either tougher hurdles to passage or more votes to be taken.

Financing the vouchers through the annual budget process and outside of the school financing formula would have given lawmakers the opportunity to take an individual vote on the voucher program, rather than a vote on all education funding plans at once.

Passing the changes that lessened the power of local school boards over hiring and firing and that required the state superintendent’s review of local school superintendent contracts in a separate bill would have required additional votes from lawmakers. Instead, the governor included those provisions in a bill that eliminated statewide teacher pay scales and made it tougher for teachers to reach tenure, portions that were upheld by Caldwell.

Agreeing that the retirement bill changing the pension plan offered to future rank-and-file employees required a two-thirds vote likely would have doomed the measure entirely. Neither the House nor Senate gave the bill a two-thirds vote on initial passage.

If Jindal wants to hold onto those accomplishments, he may just have to go through the tougher roads to passage.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.