How The Legislature Got From There To Here

Many lawmakers entered the Memorial Day weekend not thinking about backyard barbecues or dreaming about seaside resorts. Thoughts instead gravitated towards one question: “What in the hell is going on?”

With the regular session scheduled to end soon, as in next week, they weren’t the only ones. Others tracking the process — and even those ignoring it — would have been satisfied just to learn exactly how the Legislature got here, this place where important bills are somehow stalled in legislative purgatory and a complete meltdown is a likelihood.

Well, those with keen eyes received their first glimpse into the darkness of impasse on May 4, 2017. That’s when the Louisiana House of Representatives approved a skinny state budget without the meaty tax increases sought by the Governor’s Office and Senate leadership.

It was a surprise to no one. At the time the House had refused to move most of the key tax bills out of the committee process, and insiders doubted the measures would have made it much further even if they had been. GOP representatives hadn’t rallied around permanent tax increases since Gov. John Bel Edwards took office last year, and they weren’t going to start now.

Edwards, working in his office three floors above the House chamber, immediately labeled the budget document as a non-starter.

Democratic representatives were enraged too, some even more so nine days later when the House passed a bill requiring public votes before military memorials could be uninstalled. The removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans helped ignite the floor hearing, which ended with members of the Black Caucus staging a walk-out. Issues of race drove that debate and the process of picking sides completely destroyed some relationship inside the rails of the House, leaving behind only anger and resentment.

It was another nine days later, on May 24, when hope truly started to escape from the Capitol’s limestone exterior like it was a leaky pipe. On that day House Democrats, in a surprise move, blocked the funding mechanism needed to underwrite construction projects statewide. Privately Republicans howled while black Democrats, still steaming from the military monuments bill, didn’t hesitate to assist their party brethren.

It was a classic hostage move. Democrats wanted concessions from the House GOP leadership on the budget and tax increases. At least those were the reasons initially offered. What Democrats really wanted was better representation on the lower chamber’s budget-writing and tax-creation committees. (As negotiations on that front started this week, Republican representatives were digging in to concede nothing as Democrats prepared to die on their swords.)

This was around the same time that separate negotiations between the House and Senate on the budget seemed to deteriorate. At the heart of the matter is $206 million that the House wants to sock away and that the Senate and governor want to spend. On the page that’s a tiny sum in a $29 billion budget. But it’s also proof that ideology — in this case cutting versus spending — is the diet of the day at the Capitol.

When all of these moving pieces came into full view in Baton Rouge recently, the governor, House speaker and Senate president all predicted, practically simultaneously, that another special session would be needed. Last week Edwards even went so far as to have his staff start drafting a call for that fourth special session of the term to convene 30 minutes after the regular session ends on June 8. Just in case.

Yet there’s still time remaining, which is to say the Edwards Administration, House and Senate deserve the benefit of the doubt.

All of the bills that have been stalled are just that. They’re not stuck in political concrete. Additionally, all of the goodwill has not yet escaped from the limestone. More can be generated, and rather easily. Critical services are not officially underfunded at this moment, either, even if it looks that way. The final budget bill is still pending.

Time remains for solutions.

The exception, of course, is the $1.3 billion fiscal cliff of 2018. Lawmakers have not been able to replace the temporary tax revenue that’s falling off of the books next year and they’re unlikely to make great strides in these remaining days. A special session will undoubtedly have to be called for this shortfall eventually, maybe in the fall or next year.

If lawmakers fail to forge a compromise on the budget over the next week or so, however, and the governor doesn’t bend as well, then an immediate special session will be needed. And there will be plenty of blame to go around for that unneeded lawmaking event. Plus, if Democrats and Republicans in the House can’t find a way to work together and fund those construction projects now in legislative limbo, there will be blame doled out for that as well.

Until then, we’ll wait and see. But the benefit of the doubt will expire soon.

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