Battle Over St. George Moves to State Capitol
Amid the raft of legislation making its way through the 2014 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature are a number of bills that could impact the incorporation of the proposed City of St. George and the creation of the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School System. Sen. Bodi White (R-Central) is the point man for St. George in the legislature. He has introduced several bills that are supported by the St. George movement. Other bills could block or hinder the movement and still others will be of considerable interest to both supporters and opponents.
Sen. White and Rep. Hunter Greene (R-Baton Rouge) have introduced the St. George Transition District bill, which White said is intended
to resolve some issues that could arise with the incorporation of the City of St. George. White said the district would insure continuity of government. The bills, SB638 and HB1248, are modeled after the Central Transition District legislation White passed when the City of Central was incorporated.
The bills would create a seven-member board that would oversee certain aspects of the transition, especially collection of the existing two-cent parish sales tax, which is now levied in unincorporated areas of the parish.
Under the proposal, after incorporation, the parish would continue to collect the two-cent sales tax, which amounts to $82 million a year, and use it to provide services within St. George until the St. George city government is up and running. Voters would then be given the option to transfer the tax from the parish to the City of St. George.
After voters approved the transfer of the sales tax, the City of St. George would begin providing city services.
The bills also provide that revenues collected within the City of St. George would continue to fund the Constitutional offices in the parish, such as the 19th Judicial District, District Attorney, and Coroner’s office. These are currently funded by taxes collected in the unincorporated areas. None of the taxes collected in Baton Rouge, Baker, Zachary, or Central pay for Constitutional offices.
Anti-Incorporation Bills. Three bills have been introduced, which would seriously undercut efforts to create the City of St. George:
• SB674 by Sen. Ben Nevers of Bogalusa would place a moratorium on the creation of new municipalities in Louisiana for a two-year period. Sen. Nevers said this would allow the legislature to study incorporation and come up with any needed changes in the law. This bill is retroactive and would halt the current effort to incorporate the City of St. George. The existing petition drive would be suspended until December 31, 2015, and could resume at that time, unless legislation were passed to further impede incorporation.
• HB768 by Rep. Edward Price would limit petition drives for incorporation of new municipalities to 180 days, or 90 days in the case of municipalities of 1,000 residents or less. There is currently no time limit on gathering signatures.
The movement to gather signatures for incorporation of the City of St. George has already been going on for six months and would have been already terminated under Price’s bill.
Norman Browning, who leads the St. George incorporation movement, said their volunteers are on-track to complete the petition drive by late June. That would be about nine months.
• HB1212 by Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge, which provide that the voters of the entire parish would vote on whether to allows St. George to incorporate, instead of just the people of St. George.
Currently, sentiment in favor of incorporation of St. George is relatively high inside the proposed city. However, at least one poll showed that a majority of the people parishwide are opposed to the incorporation of St. George.
If any of these three bills is passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, the movement to incorporate the City of St. George would be dead in the water.
Pro-Southeast School District Legislation. SB354 by Sen. Bodi White is a constitutional amendment, which provides that, in the future, the legislature could create new school districts without the passage of a constitutional amendment every time a new school district is proposed. If this bill passes the legislature and is approved by voters statewide, the Southeast Baton Rouge School District would go into effect without the necessity of a specific constitutional amendment for St. George.
This bill passed out of committee unanimously last month and is awaiting action on the Senate floor.
No legislation has been introduced in the session that would make it more difficult to start the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District. However, it already quite difficult, requiring a two-thirds vote of two houses of the legislature and a statewide and local referendum.
Other Relevant Legislation. Sen. White has introduced SB636 on behalf of BRAC, which would change how local public schools are governed in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. Rep. Dalton Honore has introduced HB1177, which is identical, in the House.
These bills provide for the creation of three or more “enrollment districts” within the East Baton Rouge system. The school board, rather than the superintendent, would appoint a principal for each school.
The school principal would then have a great deal of autonomy in governing the schools, including budgetary control. The principal would in turn appoint an advisory council, composed of parents and local business owners and other activists to advise the principal.
This proposal does not provide for neighborhood schools, but rather for greater autonomy at the school level.
SB672 by Sen. White and HB1178 by Rep. Honore provide for the reapportionment of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board before this fall’s election. Instead of 11 members’ being elected from 11 single member districts, the school board would be composed of seven members with six elected from single member districts and one elected at-large.
The school board would be required to draw up a six-member district plan prior to August of this year.
Sen. White has also introduced SB484, which would divide the East Bast Baton Rouge school system into four sub-districts, each headed by a deputy superintendent appointed by the parish school superintendent. However, White is apparently shelving that bill in favor of SB636, which was proposed by BRAC.
To follow the progress of a bill, go to www.legisl.la.gov and click on “Bills” and insert the bill number.