Mar 7, 2014 7:43 AM by AP
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. Bobby Jindal said aligning Louisiana's educational systems to state workforce needs will be his main priority for the legislative session that begins Monday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the Republican governor outlined items he's pushing with lawmakers during the three-month session, including tougher laws against human trafficking in Louisiana and changes to the civil litigation system sought by business groups.
He's seeking new restraints on a southeast Louisiana flood protection board that filed a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry, a lawsuit Jindal opposed. And he's promising a vigorous defense of his 2012 education laws, which are targeted for rollback by several lawmakers.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative - a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law - collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
At the top of his list this session, Jindal said he wants to build on efforts to recruit and retain businesses. He said his administration has attracted billions of dollars in new investment, much of it in the petrochemical industry, but he said Louisiana needs to better prepare workers for the construction and skills trades jobs coming with those projects.
"We need to link the needs of employers with our educational institutions," Jindal said. "I think our big challenge this session is getting ready for this manufacturing expansion."
He's asking legislators to steer $40 million to a new incentive fund encouraging colleges to do more commercial research and produce graduates in high-demand fields. To get the dollars, schools would have to work with private businesses and get a 20 percent funding match.
Jindal said the idea is to link employer needs with educational institutions and to give students job-relevant training. But some lawmakers say the dollars should instead be more evenly distributed since higher education has struggled to cope with $700 million in state financing cuts over the last six years.
Also included in the governor's workforce training agenda is legislation that would tweak Louisiana's career-track diploma to require public high school students who are not college-bound to obtain job skills certifications before they can graduate.
In other areas, Jindal said he supports efforts by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, to strengthen laws against human trafficking and to train law enforcement to identify the problem.
"Too often, it's too easy to think it happens only overseas. The reality is it's happening right here," the governor said.
On other legal issues, Jindal is backing a series of bills by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, that seek to undermine a lawsuit filed by a New Orleans-area levee board against more than 90 oil and gas companies whose drilling activities are blamed for coastal erosion in vulnerable wetlands.
Jindal has called the board's lawsuit a windfall for trial lawyers because of the contingency fee arrangement, which would give the attorneys a slice of any judgment rather than a flat fee.
He's backing an Adley bill that would prohibit Louisiana's flood protection authorities from hiring outside lawyers without approval from the governor, require lawmakers to sign off on board contingency fee arrangements and apply the restrictions retroactively, attempting to void the lawsuit.
Another Adley bill would give the governor more authority in choosing levee board members, reversing a policy enacted after the levee failures and catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Katrina that left nearly all the selection process to engineers, academics and others outside of state government.
Critics say the measures would introduce political meddling into a process designed to be free of such interference.
Jindal also is expected to spend much of the legislative session defending his education policies from two years ago, which created a statewide voucher program, expanded charter schools and made it tougher for teachers to reach tenure. Several lawmakers have proposed revisiting the changes.
Louisiana Legislature: www.legis.la.gov