The 60-Day Challenge

When the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature convenes on April 10, it will all come down to clock management for lawmakers and the Edwards Administration. So forget all of the marathon metaphors that you know, because this coming session, which concludes on June 8, is definitely going to be a sprint.

How much can the governor, House and Senate realistically accomplish in 60 days? If all involved manage to stay focused, the end results could be bountiful and meaningful. But policymaking is always easier said than done.

Those eight and a half weeks, positioned squarely in the middle of springtime in Louisiana, will host a bevy of distractions for lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ team.

Special interests and legislators will be pushing their own issues that have nothing to do with the budget or tax revenue, which are nonetheless destined to be the session’s featured players. Political action committees will be watching all of the debates closely, attacking those who can vote or veto and building narratives for elections that are more than two years away.

Strip all of that noise away, though, and you’ll see that the primary goal of lawmakers and the Edwards Administration during the regular session will be to dig Louisiana out of its fiscal funk. It’s a broadly-drawn goal, to be certain, but it is without a doubt the focus of most folks who work in the Capitol these days.

That goal applies to the short term, with $1.2 billion in temporary tax money set to disappear in 2018. And it applies to the shorter term, particularly a $400 million budget shortfall that’s forecasted for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

And, yes, the same goal applies to the long term as well, especially as concern builds over the fiscal integrity of state government. No one wants to perpetuate this cycle of budget deficits and deep spending cuts.

Like it has been for the past four sessions, the House will set the tone and the pace of negotiations. If recent history is any indication, the governor will go high for his revenue proposals and the House will go low. Very low. Somehow the Senate will have to insert itself in the middle and find some common ground.

That was the way talks played out during the special session that adjourned last month. There’s actually a bit of negative foreshadowing to glean from that special session as well as some silver linings.

For starters, lawmakers and the administration only had a week and a half to fix a $304 million midyear deficit — and they accomplished just that.

The bad news is that tempers flared, negotiations broke down a few times and disagreements were intense. Which was slightly surprising.

No taxes increases were passed, or even proposed. Spending only had to be cut by $82 million. Nearly $100 million was transferred from the state’s special savings account to help out.

Most of the rancor centered on how to use a few million dollars here and a few million dollars there. While every penny is critical, it’s important to understand that the loudest clashes were produced by what were nickels and dimes in a $27 billion budget.

How will this mentality hold up in a 60-day regular session that hosts truly hefty threats, like a $400 million deficit and a loss of $1.2 billion in temporary tax money?

The pressure will be like nothing we’ve seen so far in this term. In fact, the ability to stay focused on these budget matters will be of the upmost importance to lawmakers.

Other issues will be jockeying for attention, such as criminal justice reform. Influential lobbyists and special interest groups are locked onto the policy push — and they’ll be asking lawmakers to be smart on crime while trying to keep them from looking soft on crime.

Parents and students may end up packing the Capitol as the debate over the TOPS scholarship program gets serious. Email inboxes, text messages and voicemails alone can send a legislator’s district office to a grinding halt. Just try balancing that level of constituent engagement while taking part in what may be one of the most important fiscal debates of modern times.

Conservatives and white Democrats, in particular, are in a delicate spot. Groups like the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority and the Louisiana chapter of Americans For Prosperity will be tracking all votes. They could even drop targeted mailers, launch door-to-door operations and underwrite robocalls in legislative districts during the session.

Eight and a half weeks can seem like an eternity when you’re dealing with that kind of political drama. A reluctance by Republicans to increase taxes, as Democrats dig in for proposed hikes, will only make it seem longer. Still, the primary goal is well known and the timeline to address the related challenges is well defined.

The 60-day challenge is almost here, whether lawmakers and the administration are ready for it or not. Here’s hoping they run out of distractions and delays before they run out of time.

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