Louisiana Spotlight: Early end proves difficult for lawmakers
BATON ROUGE — Louisiana lawmakers have been working at quickened speed this spring, trying to rush through hundreds of bills to wrap up their general session early and move onto the tougher budget and tax decisions they’ve avoided for some time.
Whether the accelerated pace will lead to a successful early end or unproductive hurrying remains uncertain.
The House and Senate have yet to agree to calendar choices that would make the early end work, and reaching that agreement is proving difficult among lawmakers who tend toward procrastination and last-minute decision-making rather than the most efficient use of time.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has been pushing for a shortened regular session to free up time for another tax session aimed at closing a budget shortfall and staving off steep slashing to services.
Louisiana’s expected to take in $648 million less in general state tax dollars in the budget year that begins July 1 than the state received this year, tied to the expiration of temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 to patch budget holes. Edwards wants lawmakers to replace some of the expiring taxes, but a special session earlier this year ended in stalemate. The Legislature can’t consider taxes in the regular session.
The Democratic governor wanted lawmakers to wrap up their regular session in mid-May, rather than on June 4, to then start the special session. He said that would keep taxpayers from having to pay extra for another special session, after nearly $650,000 was spent on the failed tax session in February.
Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras and GOP Senate President John Alario both say they agree with the concept of an early end, to move into the tax session. But Barras has resisted Alario’s proposal to put the commitment to an early adjournment in legislation.
The governor’s initial target date was May 14 to start the special session. That’s clearly not going to happen.
Of more than 1,400 bills filed this session, only about two dozen have been signed into law. While many others have been shelved or rejected, hundreds of other measures are somewhere in the legislative process, awaiting final decisions. House committees still are combing through House bills this week, proposals just reaching the first step of a multistep legislative process.
Barras said a possible end of the regular session around May 18 could be possible: “That’s certainly more reasonable.” But he noted the Senate hasn’t heard any of his bills yet.
“You’ve got some pretty important bills on some pretty important subjects that are important to members,” Barras said.
And the House speaker added a new twist to talk of speeding up the regular session, saying last week that he wouldn’t support wrapping up until senators send over a budget proposal that shows how they would propose to slash spending if no additional tax dollars are raised.
“I think that’ll be important to us continuing to move toward a close,” he said.
Lawmakers disagree on whether they should stall a budget until the special session.
A $27 billion state operating budget scraped through the House on a nearly party-line vote of Republican support. The proposal would cut public safety programs, cover only 80 percent of tuition costs through TOPS and steeply slash financing for health services. Safety-net hospitals would shutter, and tens of thousands would lose the state aid that keeps them in nursing homes.
The Edwards administration has encouraged senators not to pass a budget until the special session. But Senate leaders say they’re trying to find consensus on a proposal containing the deep cuts.
“If we can put together a bill that works for everyone, we’ll pass it out,” said Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat. “Obviously this year will be a little bit more difficult than in my previous years as far as getting a consensus.”
LaFleur said he’ll work with senators to see if an approach can win enough votes from the Finance Committee this week.
“No matter what comes out, it’s not going to be acceptable I think to most members,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem.”
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte