ALFORD: An Issue Of Control At The Capitol

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With a new political landscape at the State Capitol and uncertainty coloring every part of the process, it has sometimes been difficult during this year’s legislative sessions to uncover who’s really pulling the strings.

Independent leadership in the House and turnover brought about by term limits are two factors. But together with Louisiana’s usual dose of politics, they’ve created the kind of confusion commonplace to battlefields. With controversies exploding in the air and warring factions knocking steel to armor, lawmakers have had to shout the question loudly more than once this year: “Who’s in charge around here?!?”

The answer shifts with the days. Yet in terms of the second special session that convened Monday night, the House will be setting the early pace and largely controlling the first half of the lawmaking ahead. It helps that tax bills must originate in the House, but this kind of control is about personalities as well. A band of conservatives in the lower chamber present Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Senate with their tallest hurdle. Team Edwards will have to find a way to negotiate with this group to accomplish the most important tasks in the special session, particularly on any measure that seeks to increase taxes.

You can already see the fiscal tug of war playing out. The governor, who set the agenda for the special session, said he wants lawmakers to generate $600 million in new revenue to keep next fiscal year’s budget afloat. Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, meanwhile, has asked senators to come up with at least $450 million. And in the House there’s a bipartisan plan coming together that calls for just $300 million in new revenue. If the Legislature ends up on the smaller side of that range, the real issue will not be what is passed to raise money, but how the limited amount of cash produced will be spread around in the supplemental budget bill.

The House wanted to be in control of the budget process as the regular session came to a close over the weekend. Representatives rejected the final Senate version of the budget, immediately entered into negotiations and ended up passing practically the same bill that senators had earlier sent over — with some $5.2 million in changes, in a $26 billion budget. The need for relevance and control by the House was a meaningless exercise, since the budget will be reshaped in the special session anyway. Speaker Taylor Barras did have a plan to redirect money from dedicated funds, which was discussed in those weekend negotiations, but the Senate refused to bite.

On another front, the Legislature as a whole did start to relinquish control over tuition rates at institutions of higher education. Louisiana is one of a few states in the nation that allow its lawmakers to set tuition. But a constitutional amendment passed during the regular session may move that authority to the supervising boards of public colleges and universities. Voters do get the final say on this change, but the fact that the proposal made it this far speaks volumes about the mood at the Capitol. Proponents have pushed this idea for several years and it has always found failure. Until now.

Every now and then the Legislature takes control of something it really doesn’t want. That’s the case with this tuition-setting authority. Unable to bolster higher education after years of deep funding cuts, lawmakers have decided to let the supervising boards take the heat for raising tuition. Plus, a two-thirds vote, which is needed to change tuition rates, is becoming increasingly rare in the House. Should voters favor the constitutional amendment, it’ll be one less headache for lawmakers in this tumultuous term.

Then there’s Attorney General Jeff Landry, who spent the last few weeks of the regular session arguing he wasn’t reaching for more control. Senators, however, didn’t see it that way. When Landry advocated for a standalone budget that only he could control, the House passed a bill to do just that and it was torpedoed by the Senate. And as Landry continued to intervene in lawsuits and challenge the governor on different issues, the Senate took it all a step further by rerouting some of his department’s cash to cover other budget needs.

There’s no centralized power base at the Capitol these days. No single person controls the game, or even a majority of the political chokepoints. That makes negotiations and compromises all the more important in a place where lawmakers, statewide elected officials, lobbyists and others are still trying to get a read on things — five months into the new term. Still, a healthy give-and-take has been hard to come by in this year’s legislative sessions. The good news is that all involved seem to be moving closer to realizing that control, in the traditional sense, is being shared more than ever. Giving it up completely, of course, is the real challenge.

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