Special Session in La. Is Canceled; Education Issues Slated for March

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Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana has scuttled a planned special legislative session on education because of a Medicaid funding crisis.

But an aide to the governor said the same education issues that would have been addressed in a three-week special session beginning Feb. 23 will now be taken up in the regular legislative session, which opens March 31.

Louann Bierlein, Mr. Foster's education adviser, said last week that the reshuffling will work out well. The new schedule actually gives the administration more time to spread information and build support for its education proposals, she said. And some of the state's part-time legislators had grumbled about the length of time a special session would keep them away from their regular jobs.

The Republican governor had wanted to focus the special session on education so that the topic did not get lost among the flood of bills expected in the first legislative session in two years to deal with topics beyond financial matters.

Reaping Tax Surplus

Although Mr. Foster's proposed state budget is not due to be released until next week, he has already made public some of his new spending ideas for K-12 education.

Several of the proposals would be paid for with higher-than-expected revenues generated by robust collections of state sales and income taxes. The money would go for one-time K-12 expenditures totaling about $103 million, including $75 million for computer technology and scientific equipment and $10 million for a fund to reward high-achieving schools. Details of the school rewards are yet to be worked out, but could include teacher bonuses, said Deelayn Cothern, a state budget analyst.

Mr. Foster's plans also include $5 million for interest-free start-up loans for groups that want to open charter schools--a favorite venture of the governor's.

In addition, the governor will seek $65 million for boosting teacher salaries by asking the legislature not to lower the state sales tax. Effective July 1, the sales tax is to go from 4 percent to 3 percent for some items, including food and utilities.

Because of a constitutional prohibition, the tax matter can only be taken up in a special session, which Mr. Foster plans to call at the end of June.

The special session on education was canceled after the governor learned that the state was facing a possible crisis around Medicaid.

State officials have known that they were going to have to increase Louisiana's share of spending for Medicaid, which provides medical care to poor people and is financed jointly by states and the federal government. Washington has been allowing Louisiana to phase in the increase in its contribution, Ms. Bierlein said, but state officials were warned this month that federal funds aiding that effort are in jeopardy this year.

The governor's plan calls for increasing the state's Medicaid contribution from a fiscal 1997 level of $600 million to $950 million for fiscal 1998. Of that increase, most would come from growth in state revenue, but $35 million is to come from the revived sales tax or "penny renewal."

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