Legislative Update Apr 26, 2015

State Capital w tree

NOTES FROM THE SESSION:

In more than 30 years of lobbying I have never seen a legislative session quite like the one that began on April 13th. It is an odd year, 2015, which means a shortened fiscal session limited to a sixty day time span during which the legislature cannot convene more than 45 days. This session must end no later than June 13th.

Louisiana’s constitution allows legislators to introduce up to five bills on any topic, but given the state’s dire fiscal situation—surely the worst since 1987 and possibly, with a $1.6-$1.8 billion deficit to be closed, the worst in modern times—money issues are clearly foremost in the minds of legislators. Further complicating matters, Louisiana legislators, except for those who are term limited, face reelection this fall.

And finally, with more power and authority vested in him than the governor of any other state, Governor Jindal has all but checked out to focus his attention on a presumed bid for the White House. Jindal’s parting words to legislators on the opening day of the session were, “Good Luck.” As if his absence were not problematic enough, Jindal has made it clear that he will veto any measure that is not revenue neutral. The legislature, then, can raise taxes or fees, but they must be offset with tax and/or fee reductions elsewhere. If this holds it can only mean further cuts in government programs that many people believe cannot sustain further cuts, especially in the fields of higher education and health care.

The legislature has met for a total of six days since the opening gavel. No session lasted more than 90 or so minutes with the primary activity being bill introduction and committee referral. A small number of bills emerged from committees at the end of this week, but they have been non-controversial as legislators debate amongst themselves what to do about the budget. A notable exception to this was the Freedom of Religion bill introduced by Shreveport freshman representative Mike Johnson, which drew fire and debate even before it was referred to committee. Although as introduced it doesn’t have anything to do with the environment, it will be interesting to watch.

Another exception was Senator Karen Carter Peterson’s annual attempt to overturn Louisiana’s Creationism in the Classroom law, which failed Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee, but not before garnering more votes than ever with the Chairman, Metairie’s Conrad Appel, having to break a 3-3 tie. The environmental community has long taken an interest in this bill out of concern that Louisiana’s K-12 students could be given inaccurate information relative to global warming.

The state’s fiscal problems and the legislature’s near obsession with finding solutions to them create an ideal situation for special interests to axe programs they dislike, especially if said programs are costly, as is the case with Louisiana’s generous solar tax credit program. You may recall that not long ago the Legislature trimmed the tax credit and enacted legislation to phase it out in 2017. Utility companies see an opportunity to speed up this timetable and especially wish to end the extension of the tax credit to solar leasing companies. By leasing a homeowner can avoid the often significant, upfront costs associated with purchasing a system. Theoretically leasing avails solar to many citizens who might not ever be in a financial position to purchase a system. Leasing also means a much faster and more widespread rollout of solar technology, which the traditional utility industry most certainly does not want…at least until they find a way to control the solar business themselves.

The first debate over the solar tax credit that led to the reduction and planned phase out was an ugly affair with leasing and sales companies at each other’s throat. Even legislators bullish on solar were dismayed and disgusted by the end of the session. This time, however, leasing and selling companies are rumored to be working in tandem to save the program for two more years, which brings to mind Benjamin Franklins famous quip during the darkest days of the American Revolutionary War that We’d better hang together else we shall surely hang separately.

Another troubling bill relating to the emerging solar industry—3600 jobs and counting in Louisiana, more jobs nationally now than the coal industry—is SB 214 by State Senator Ronnie Johns. The bill presents as a Bill of Rights for solar consumers, but it has so many unreasonable requirements that it is difficult to see it as anything other than an anti-solar measure. In all likelihood the bill is part and parcel of an effort by carbon special interests nationwide to gut renewable energy programs. In very initial conversations with Senator Johns he has indicated he is open to discussion and amendments. In all likelihood introduced the bill without fully understanding its implications or what parties might oppose it.

The other real stinker of the session is a bill introduced by Lafayette Representative Stuart Bishop, HB 597, which allows companies to perform their own environmental self-audits. The Louisiana Chemical Association knows an election year is a good time to ask for something entirely unreasonable, especially if it is the only thing being requested. If enacted, this bill would essentially hide from the public information about chemical emissions or accidents, information we have every right to access.

HB 597 is currently the most important environmental bill of the session and we should do everything possible to ensure it does not become law.

Darrell Hunt, Sierra Club Delta Chapter Lobbyist

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