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Notes from Baton Rouge

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BATON ROUGE, La. (KNOE 8 News/AP) - Lawmakers once again have shot down efforts to raise Louisiana's minimum wage, with Republicans aligned in opposition to the pay hike.

The Senate labor committee Thursday considered a measure by Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, that would have required businesses working on a project for state government to pay their employees $8.25 an hour, starting next year.

"It represents good public policy," Peterson said.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

Committee members voted 3-1 to reject Peterson's proposal. Opponents said it was unfair to target some businesses and could cost state agencies more money for projects.

Senators then voted 3-1 to kill a bill by Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, that would have created a state minimum wage of $10 an hour.

Dorsey-Colomb said minimum wage earners in Louisiana struggle to survive on a wage that has not been adjusted for inflation.

"We should be embarrassed," she said.

Democrats have filed several bills this session seeking to raise Louisiana's minimum wage, arguing it would lessen poverty in a state with the nation's third highest poverty rate.

But lawmakers have sided with business groups that oppose the effort, arguing it would hurt the economy by causing businesses to cut jobs and raise the cost of goods and services.

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A proposal to ban drivers from using handheld cell phones during school zone hours is heading to the full Senate for debate.

The House-approved bill (House Bill 370) by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, faces rewriting on the Senate floor amid continued concerns about how to notify drivers if the change is enacted.

Thompson said he proposed the idea to help ensure the safety of children.

"We want to make sure when we have distracted children crossing those roads that we don't also have distracted drivers," he told the Senate transportation committee, which agreed without objection to advance the measure to the Senate floor.

Opponents say drivers have many types of distractions that go beyond cell phones, and they say school zones already require drivers to slow down to ensure safety.

If passed into law, violators would face a fine up to $175 on a first offense, then up to $500 on subsequent offenses. If the driver is involved in a crash while on a cell phone, the fine would be doubled.

The bill would take effect Jan. 1.

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Courts should be able to create specialized divisions to handle human trafficking cases, both the House and Senate have agreed.

Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, said her bill (House Bill 569) would allow judges to better steer victims to support services, rather than jail for drug crimes or prostitution that are tied to trafficking.

The creation of a special division or section of a court to handle human trafficking cases would allow for a judge to get specialized training about available support services. If a special human trafficking division exists, all prostitution-related cases would be steered to it.

The Senate unanimously agreed to the proposal Thursday. The House already has approved it, but it heads back there for review of a Senate change. The measure is backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

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