Tax debate done, other battles emerge

Tax discussions may be largely dead for the legislative session, but lawmakers have found a list of other issues over which to bicker for the next six weeks.

While the budget almost always prompts a fight, proposals to expand Louisiana’s Medicaid program, raise new dollars for hospitals and expand gun rights also are drumming up contentious debates.

And a fight between optometrists and ophthalmologists appears to be keeping an army of lobbyists in business at the Capitol.

Gov. Bobby Jindal announced on the session’s opening day that he was scrapping his unpopular tax swap proposal – but would still push to repeal Louisiana’s income tax. A week later, the House Ways and Means Committee declared the income tax repeal dead.

The governor has said he’ll veto any tax changes that raise new income for the state, a threat that seems to have eliminated any real chance that lawmakers would make substantive changes to Louisiana’s tax laws.

So, the action has shifted elsewhere.

Disputes over the budget picked up where they left off last year, with a group of conservative House Republicans at odds with the Jindal administration over the use of piecemeal funding to paying for ongoing programs and services.

No one appears to have budged since the same fight last year, though the conservative bloc, known as the “fiscal hawks,” is looking for new angles – and new allies – in the hopes of forcing budgeting changes for the 2013-14 spending proposal.

The first move in a weeks-long chess game happens Monday when the House Appropriations Committee decides how to rework the budget proposal submitted by Jindal and legislative leaders try to advance the bill to the full House for debate.

Lawmakers not on the budget committees have found other measures to fuss about, including:

• Whether to expand Louisiana’s Medicaid program to offer health insurance to thousands of working poor, as allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act. Estimates of the cost or benefits vary widely. Jindal and the state Republican Party remain vehemently opposed, and GOP lawmakers on the House health committee killed one expansion bill. Senate Republicans seem more willing to consider the idea, and another Medicaid expansion proposal is up for debate Wednesday in the Senate health committee.

• A proposal to drum up new federal cash for private and community hospitals. The idea, pushed by the hospitals and sponsored House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, would let hospitals pool money and use it to draw down federal matching cash through the state Medicaid program. The hospitals say they would use existing dollars in the pool, but critics – including the state GOP – say the legislation would be a vehicle for hospitals to charge a new “bed tax” on patients. Kleckley, a Republican, is trying to keep the debate from becoming a partisan fight, but it may be too late.

• Bills to expand gun rights in Louisiana, such as allowing people to have concealed weapons in places where they are currently banned and prohibiting state enforcement of any new federal restrictions that might be enacted on semi-automatic weapons. The proposals have set off wide-ranging debates on state’s rights, home security and community violence.

Likely less-watched by many outside of the Capitol is one of the most heavily lobbied issues inside the building, a bill that would expand the scope of practice for optometrists, allowing them to perform certain types of eye surgery though they didn’t go through medical school.

White-coated ophthalmologists, who are medical doctors and currently can perform such procedures, have filled the Capitol’s halls to oppose the change. The bill is on hold on the House floor while lawmakers determine whether they can broker a compromise.

All the haggling continues until June 6, when the regular legislative session must end.

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