By MELINDA DESLATTE / Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Gov. Bobby Jindal told lawmakers opening their annual legislative session Monday that Louisiana's biggest challenge was making sure it has enough workers to fill the jobs his administration has helped attract to the state.
Boosting job skills training for high school and college students and better matching them to the petrochemical and manufacturing jobs coming to Louisiana is the Republican governor's top priority for the 85-day session, which runs until June.
"Because of the work we have completed to foster a strong business climate, there are now thousands of jobs in the pipeline for Louisiana," Jindal told a joint session of the House and Senate.
"Our next challenge is to ensure we have the skilled workforce to fill these jobs of the future," he said, according to prepared remarks.
The centerpiece of the effort involves directing new money to science and technology programs in Louisiana's public colleges. The governor also wants to require skills training for high school students who don't plan to go to a four-year university, so they graduate with an industry-based certification in areas like electrical work or a specialized skill for a chemical plant.
Jindal highlighted economic development wins in his speech, saying his administration has drawn new businesses and expansions totaling $50 billion in private investment. He offered the stories of eight people who were returning home, staying put or moving to Louisiana that he said involved the recruiting work of his administration.
But the governor avoided the highest profile topic facing lawmakers this session, whether to scrap the state's use of more rigorous educational standards adopted by most states, called the Common Core. The issue divides Republicans, and Jindal has refused to say whether he supports a roll back of the standards or other modifications.
Beyond worker training, Jindal's agenda is limited, largely involving his support for ideas offered by individual legislators. He's asking lawmakers to limit the authority of a state flood protection board that is suing the oil and gas industry, to toughen restrictions on abortion and to take stronger action against human trafficking.
The smaller work list isn't surprising.
The governor has fewer than two years remaining in his term and his eye on a possible 2016 presidential campaign. His relationship with lawmakers has grown more difficult in recent years, and a sweeping tax plan Jindal proposed last year fizzled without a vote being taken. His legislative day started with a national editorial on the U.S. dispute with Russia over its intervention in the Ukraine, and later the governor was scheduled to be on CNBC to talk about American energy production.
While Jindal has proposed a light list, lawmakers have filed more than 1,500 bills with a range of their own ideas on education, finances, health care and crime.
They'll consider measures to boost the state's minimum wage, legalize medical marijuana, loosen gun restrictions, cap the state's free college tuition program and expand Louisiana's Medicaid program as allowed under President Barack Obama's health care law.
Legislators can tackle nearly any topic of interest -- except taxes. And they must get a budget done before they go home.
Jindal offered his $25 billion budget proposal for the 2014-15 fiscal year. The governor recommends new education and health care spending, pay raises for state workers and an incentive fund to encourage colleges to enhance their science, engineering and technology training.
A group of House conservatives is criticizing some of the financial maneuvers Jindal wants to use to steer surplus and other one-time cash to ongoing state government expenses, continuing an annual fight over budget strategy.
The regular session must end by June 2.
The legislative gathering will revisit some of the perennial debates in the Louisiana Capitol. Lawmakers will consider bills on hot-button social issues like abortion and gay rights. They'll again debate whether to ban cellphone use while driving. And they'll return to a discussion of whether to open more governor's office records to public scrutiny.
Heated debate already has started about the state's use of the Common Core educational standards, which are grade-by-grade benchmarks adopted by most states of what students should learn in reading, writing and math.
The state education board agreed more than three years ago to phase in the standards to Louisiana's public schools. Now that implementation is underway, lawmakers are questioning whether the efforts should be slowed, tweaked or scrapped entirely.
Meanwhile, a feud between the oil and gas industry and a flood protection board in southeast Louisiana will spill into legislative debate.
Jindal is pushing to void a lawsuit the board filed against more than 90 oil and gas companies that blames their drilling activities for coastal erosion. The governor's also seeking new limitations on the levee boards' authority and independence.