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Lawmakers agree to refinance La.'s tobacco bonds

Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, asks questions of Treasurer John Kennedy during a meeting of the joint budget committee on Wednesday, May 29, 2013, in Baton Rouge, La. The committee approved a refinancing of the state's tobacco settlement bonds, over Kennedy's objections. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Louisiana's tobacco settlement bonds would be refinanced to take advantage of low interest rates and generate millions in upfront cash for next year's budget, under a deal approved Wednesday by lawmakers.

Unanimous backing from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget came despite criticism from Treasurer John Kennedy over the structure of the deal.

Kennedy said Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration pushed for a refinancing that generates all the savings upfront to plug budget holes. He said the state could save more by stretching out the savings over many years.

"I want you to know you're leaving money on the table here. I wouldn't do this structure," he said.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said the state will save an estimated $140 million over three years, including at least $60 million anticipated for next year's budget for the state's free college tuition program called TOPS.

She disagreed with Kennedy's claims that another refinancing structure could offer significantly more savings.

"There was relatively little difference when you look at the savings to the state," Nichols said of the two types of structures. She added, "This is a good deal."

The refinancing still needs approval from the Bond Commission. But many of the members of the joint budget committee are on the commission, along with members of the Jindal administration, suggesting the refinancing arrangement likely will get approval there.

Louisiana is one of many states that settled lawsuits for claims of smokers' deaths and health costs against tobacco companies in 1998 in return for installments of money each year.

The state sold 60 percent of its settlement to investors for $1.2 billion in upfront cash through a bond sale in 2001, rather than risk tobacco companies going belly-up later and not making their settlement payments. The dollars were socked away into a trust fund. Interest earnings are used to help fund TOPS, along with other health and education programs.

It's those bonds that would be refinanced, to take advantage of a lower interest rate for repayment of the borrowing debt. The existing interest rate is 5.85 percent. Nichols said the refinancing could drop the rates to around 3 percent.

"The market is right. Interest rates are at a historic low," she said.

Kennedy supports the refinancing, but disagreed with the structure that was approved by a board governing the tobacco settlement and lawmakers. He was the only member of the Tobacco Settlement Finance Corp. to disagree with the structure.

He said the Jindal administration undermined the process for deciding which type of refinancing should be pursued when the governor filed his 2013-14 budget proposal for the year that begins July 1 — and included $60 million in assumed savings from the refinancing.

"It tainted the process. I mean, how can you have an objective look at what's your best option if you guys are told, 'If you don't pick door No. 1, you've got to come up with $60 million.' That kind of jades your point of view a little bit," he said.

Under the refinancing structure outlined by Nichols, Louisiana is expected to get $67 million in the next fiscal year, $57 million in savings in 2014-15 and $18 million a year later based on current interest rates.