After heated debates, House approves mandatory kindergarten at 5, kills continuing movie credits

Rep. Vincent Pierre
Lafayette Democrat Vincent Pierre, left, chats up fellow legislators during the 2021 regular session.

With the clock winding down to the end of the legislative session in just two weeks, the House of Representatives ramrodded through scores of bills and resolutions Thursday, but the emotional issue of mandatory kindergarten at age 5 and the perennial argument over whether Louisiana is getting its $180-million-a-year’s worth from movie business tax credits consumed over an hour of debate each.

In the end, the kindergarten bill, SB10 by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, which passed the Senate 34-1 and was reported favorably by the House Education Committee 19-1 with strong bipartisan support, was approved by the House only after some intense questioning and attempts to tack on amendments to water it down.

The vote was 59-31, with 15 absentees. Six of the absentees later went on the record, making the final tally 60-36, with nine absentees, among them Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, and Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, whose district includes part of Youngsville. Yet, both were recorded voting on an amendment to SB10 during the floor debate. 

Among the other six Lafayette Parish representatives, Republican Jean-Paul Coussan and Democrats Marcus Bryant and Vincent Pierre voted aye and Republicans Julie Emerson and Jonathan Goudeau voted nay. 

On SB173 by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Chalmette, which would have extended the tax credits for motion picture companies another three years to 2028, the vote was 45 yeas and 37 nays—eight short of the required 53 votes in the 105-member House. Speaker Clay Schexnayder cast a rare nay vote. 

It was an uncommon House rejection of a bill that enjoyed wide Senate support. It passed the Senate 34-3 on April 27. 

That meant 23 members, more than a fifth of the membership, would not go on the record. Again, Beaullieu and Bishop were among the absentees. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, could try to round up eight votes from the absentees and move to reconsider, but with the speaker opposing the bill, it appears the 17 years of inducements to movie companies to film here have come to an end.

Coussan, Emerson and Goudeau also voted nay, while Bryant and Pierre voted to extend the credits. 

Debate on both bills was among the most heated heard this session.

Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, the House sponsor for the mandatory kindergarten bill, told the House, “Investing in good childhood education just makes good business sense,” arguing that 160,000 children in Louisiana cannot read. “Mississippi is slaughtering us on literacy. This is good, sound public policy.”

Rep. Beryl Amadée, R-Houma, was the most vociferous opponent to the bill, and tried to tack on an amendment that would allow parents to decide if their children “aren’t ready” for kindergarten at 5.

“By lowering the compulsory age from 7 to 5, you take away from parental choice,” she argued. 

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, rebutted Amedée, calling her amendment a “poison pill to destroy the intent of the bill.”

Amedée countered that she had received 1,400 emails from constituents opposing the bill because of the parental rights issue. She contended that a child’s brain is 90% developed at the age of 5 and many children still need nurturing at home.

Coussan said he favored the bill but cautioned against over-relying on “studies from Harvard. I think we need to look a little closer to home, to Texas, and I hate to say it, Mississippi.”

In the end, Amedée’s amendment failed 30-65. Other amendments were rejected by similar margins. One amendment, by Rep. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, was adopted. It changes the cutoff date of a child’s birthday for entering kindergarten from Sept. 30 to March 31. It passed 56-39, with Beaullieu and Bishop present and voting aye. So did Coussan, Emerson and Goudeau; Bryant and Pierre voted nay. 

In his closing, Hughes said, “Education is the mortal enemy of poverty. I’m tired of (Louisiana) being last, behind Texas and Mississippi. It’s time to move the needle on education.” 

The bill now goes back to the Senate, which must concur in the House amendment or reject it. 

A short time later, the House turned to the thorny movie credit bill. Riser explained that Hewitt’s bill moves the “sunset,” or statutory termination date for the credit, from 2025 to 2028.

“We need to review the return on our investment sooner than seven years,” Emerson said.

Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, suggested an amendment that would add a voice-over at the end of each movie saying, “Made in Louisiana.” It was adopted 90-4.

But in the end, opponents to the idea of continuing to send $180 million a year to “Hollywood fat cats,” as one member called them, won the day, citing the illogic of receiving only 22 cents per dollar back. Since it was enacted in 2004, one member complained, it has cost the state $2 billion.

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, argued that $180 million could build a new bridge over the Mississippi River, and pointed out that the state currently spends only $110 million on community colleges.

“How can we sit here and say that’s the best thing to do for the state?” he asked. 

Other Business: Senate OKs resolution on ‘disproportionate’ oil & gas federal taxes

The concurrent resolution by Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, expressing opposition to “singling out” the oil and gas industries for a “disproportionate” share of the federal tax burden received Senate approval Thursday morning, but not before taking some barbed questions from two of the Senate’s few liberals.

HCR98 easily passed the House 96-0 on May 26, but it faced slightly rougher sledding in the Senate, where the vote to concur on amendments was 31-6.

The resolution’s Senate handler, Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, had difficulty answering questions lobbed by Sens. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, and Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.

“I’m not the author,” Allain replied several times, legislative lingo for, “I haven’t a clue.”

“Are these the oil and gas companies we’re talking about that make $9 billion in profits, that we exempt from taxes and give rebates to?” Luneau asked Allain. “Does the federal government give rebates on taxes, or is that just a Louisiana thing?”

After a short hesitation, Allain replied sheepishly, “I think you know the answer to that.”

The resolution itemizes 12 justifications why tax breaks, subsidies and incentives should be continued for the oil and gas industries, but the literal bottom line was the argument that they “allow natural gas, oil and fuel industries to create jobs and offset the intangible costs of drilling; invest in our communities; fund critical education, infrastructure, and social service programs; and deliver the energy working families rely on every day.”

It resolves that the Legislature “express its opposition to singling out these natural gas, oil, and fuels industries by disproportionately increasing the tax burden on them and the constituents of this state.” It also directs that the resolution be sent to the president, all the members of his Cabinet and all the members of the Louisiana congressional delegation.

Besides Luneau and Peterson, the senators voting against the resolution were Democrats Joseph Bouie of New Orleans, Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge, Katrina Jackson of Monroe and Edward Price of Gonzales. All three of Lafayette Parish’s senators were present and voted for it. 

Beaullieu’s District 96 includes portions of Lafayette Parish, including parts of Youngsville.