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Budget unresolved as Louisiana session reaches final days

By MELINDA DESLATTEJune 5, 2019
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Stat eReps. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, left, and John Stefanski, R-Crowley, center, speak on the House floor to colleagues, as Louisiana's legislative session entered its final two days, on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
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Stat eReps. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, left, and John Stefanski, R-Crowley, center, speak on the House floor to colleagues, as Louisiana's legislative session entered its final two days, on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers reached the final hours of their legislative session with disputes raging about sports betting and minor budget skirmishes needing resolution, but with debates settled over new abortion restrictions and the bills passed to implement them.

The 60-day session must end by 6 p.m. Thursday.

Negotiations continued behind the scenes Wednesday between the House and Senate about a final version of next year’s more than $30 billion state operating budget, a companion measure to spend millions in unbudgeted money from the current year and the state’s construction spending plans.

But the largest disagreement, over public school financing, was resolved days ago, promising K-12 teachers a $1,000 pay raise, support workers a $500 salary bump and districts $39 million in new discretionary money for their operations. Approval of that school financing legislation gave Gov. John Bel Edwards his signature achievement for the session.

After years of fighting about how to fill budget gaps, this year’s spending debates have been less contentious, after the governor and lawmakers passed a seven-year tax deal in 2018 that stabilized finances. Legislators this year bickered over how to spend new money, a more pleasant task.

“It was kind of quiet,” House Republican leader Lance Harris said of the negotiations this session. “We just muddled through the budget process, and the budget process works.”

Lawmakers were working through disagreements over small sums, but plans to boost spending on colleges, health services, foster care, senior centers and public safety programs were expected to remain intact.

“Overall, I think we have a very balanced budget in the groups that we chose to give additional money to,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican. “They haven’t had any increased funding in a very long time.”

Lawmakers in the majority-Republican House and Senate also still were haggling over bills to legalize sports betting, set regulations for online fantasy sports competitions for cash and establish a minimum marriage age in Louisiana.

Two abortion measures won final passage Wednesday. One requires abortions that are done via medication to be performed only at Louisiana’s three licensed abortion clinics and the other asks voters to rewrite the state constitution to ensure it offers no protections for abortion rights.

Edwards, a Democrat, already has signed a more sweeping abortion restriction passed by lawmakers last week that could ban the procedure as early as six weeks of pregnancy — if a similar Mississippi law is upheld in federal court.

On Wednesday, the House gave final passage to a bill allowing medical marijuana patients to use inhalers like asthma patients, a proposal championed by patients and their advocates.

Also sent to the governor’s desk was legislation that prohibits Louisiana executive branch agencies from entering into contracts with vendors who boycott Israel. The measure by Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges, of Denham Springs, is similar to legislation approved in other states.

The loudest outstanding fights center on sports betting.

Louisiana voters agreed in November to legalize online fantasy sports contests for cash prizes in 47 parishes. But the tax and regulatory provisions required to start the betting have gotten tied up in a separate House and Senate feud over whether to legalize wagering on live action sports events.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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