Louisiana Spotlight: Unlikely bills advance in Legislature

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana’s ongoing legislative session offers a reminder that trying to predict lawmakers’ behavior or votes can be a tricky endeavor.
Proposals that initially seemed like long-shots have gained unexpected momentum, while other issues that could seem like slam-dunk measures for the Louisiana Legislature have faltered since the session began March 12 or at least slowed in their progress of becoming law.
Bills to prohibit abortion after 15 weeks, lessen licensing regulations and loosen gun laws would seem likely to gain easy traction, only to find more difficult paths for winning support.
Meanwhile, in a state struggling with repeated financial woes, lawmakers have embraced measures to expand the TOPS free college tuition program. And a long-shot proposal to do away with Louisiana’s rare-in-the-nation system that allows divided juries to settle felony cases has steadily edged ahead in a surprise even acknowledged by its supporters.
Advancing - and stalled - bills provide a gentle reminder not to place bets on expectations of legislative action. Those prognostications are likely to be upended somewhere along the way. Louisiana lawmakers eagerly have passed measures to restrict access to abortion over the years. But Democratic Sen. John Milkovich has had a tougher road winning support for his proposal to enact a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, similar to a law enacted in Mississippi. He’s seen little support from traditional anti-abortion groups.
Instead, those opposed to abortion have raised concerns that Milkovich’s bill could undermine existing Louisiana laws against abortion. Others have questioned the need to embroil the state in a costly lawsuit when Mississippi already is litigating its law.
Before the Senate passed Milkovich’s ban, senators added a provision that the prohibition could only take effect if a federal appeals court upholds Mississippi’s law. Milkovich didn’t support the rewrite, which heads next to the House for consideration.
Also running into pushback is Republican Rep. Julie Emerson’s effort to lessen Louisiana’s professional licensing requirements, which are among the country’s most restrictive. Talk of cutting regulations was high heading into session, with Gov. John Bel Edwards pushing the issue as well.
Much of that agenda has been scaled back, however, and some bills have been rejected as opponents say the regulations protect public safety and health.
Winning House passage and pending in the Senate are two bills of Emerson’s deregulation package: a bid to end florist licensing and a proposal to create an annual review process of regulations governing individual professions.
Gun measures prompted by the massacre at a Florida high school also have faced resistance. It wasn’t surprising Democrats’ efforts to enact gun-control provisions were shunned in the majority-GOP Legislature, but nearly all measures offered by Republicans to loosen firearm provisions also have been rejected, with only a few still under consideration.
And while bills to rein in the TOPS program stalled as expected, measures to expand TOPS in the 2024-25 budget year are edging along, despite questions about whether lawmakers will pay full freight for students already in the nearly $300 million tuition program.
One would create a new award for TOPS students who attend community college, get an associate degree and enroll in a four-year university. The other would offer TOPS awards to students who weren’t initially eligible when they started a four-year university but meet certain criteria after two years in college.
Supporters of the bills, sponsored by Republican Sen. Mack “Bodi” White and Democratic Sen. Wesley Bishop, say the costs are relatively small and the benefits of helping students outweigh them. Financial estimates show the expansions together would cost $1.1 million in their second year, likely growing over time.
Perhaps one of the most surprising proposals to gain momentum this session is a measure by Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, to strike a Jim Crow-era law and require unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases.
Louisiana’s one of only two states that allow some criminal trials to be resolved when 10 out of 12 jurors agree on a person’s guilt. Morrell’s Senate-backed constitutional amendment still faces a high hurdle, needing two-thirds support in the House to advance to voters on a ballot.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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