Will Lawmakers Ever Leave Baton Rouge?

The governors who preceded John Bel Edwards were no strangers to special sessions. Mike Foster, for example, called seven special sessions over the span of eight years. Kathleen Blanco conducted four of them during her single four-year term. And Bobby Jindal called three during his eight years in the Mansion. 

Edwards, in comparison, has called three special sessions during his first 14 months in office and — take a deep breath — a fourth one could be on the way very soon. 

That would be remarkable. The sitting Legislature has already served more consecutive days in session than any other since the body began meeting in 1812. 

The non-consecutive days aren’t anything to sneeze at either. Mix in the two regular sessions that have been convened thus far, plus an organizational session in 2016 that produced a historic leadership vote in the House, and lawmakers have had to gavel in a session six times in less than a year and a half.

But are we about to see yet another special session in 2017? Maybe. To be certain, no one who makes a living inside of the State Capitol would bet against that happening right now. 

Here’s why… 

The House kicked the main budget bill over to the Senate earlier this month without any new revenue being approved in advance of that floor vote. It was a decision that Edwards later described as a “non-starter,” and the move definitely ran contrary to the priorities of the Senate. 

As a result a staring match is well underway. Who blinks first in this game of political chicken will give us a decent idea of how this regular session will end — and whether it’ll bleed into another special session.

How much, or how little, the governor will be willing to accept from the legislative process is also critical to understanding the possible paths forward. Edwards issued two economic benchmarks at the beginning of the regular session that he wanted lawmakers to reach, starting with the executive budget, which as originally proposed needed another $440 million to be flush. That proved to be a bar too high for the House, which instead passed a variation of a standstill budget and is now negotiating with the Senate on that issue. 

Secondly, the governor asked lawmakers to address $1.3 billion in temporary tax revenue that will vanish in 2018. (The administration refers to this approaching decrease as “The Fiscal Cliff.”) If the House had been more receptive to the urgency in this request, it would have lit a fire underneath tax proposals weeks ago. But with the regular session more than halfway complete, that has not yet happened. 

Four longtime representatives interviewed last week used the same words when asked about tax increases: “Nothing is coming out.” A dozen or so others provided answers ranging from complete uncertainty to half-hearted predictions that a few minor revenue measures might survive. No one, however, pointed to the likelihood of the House making a last-minute push to approve a large stream of new tax bills.

The revenue picture doesn’t look promising at this late stage. There seems to be only a meager appetite in the House for altering tax credits and incentives, which is at least a glimmer of hope. But any ambitions there were for moving significant personal or corporate income tax changes are now waning. 

Representatives are likewise becoming disillusioned about the chances of any major sales tax fixes passing off of the floor, although it’s way too early to forecast failure with any confidence. And that makes it a policy issue to watch. In fact, what the House ultimately decides to do with the state sales tax structure could greatly influence the outcome of the ongoing regular session — and the governor’s decision to potentially call a fourth special session. 

Those close to Edwards are stopping short of labeling the possibility as “inevitable,” which was the word that was used in December to advertise the run-up to this term’s third special session in February. Nonetheless, those same sources note that “inevitable” is a term that could be thrown around sooner rather than later.

With the regular session inching ever closer to its June 8 adjournment, and the timeline becoming uncomfortably tight for the House to send tax bills over to the Senate, many in the administration feel like another special session would be the only worthwhile reaction to the Legislature failing to address next year’s fiscal cliff.

This isn’t news to lawmakers located near the center of the action. A fourth special session was quietly being predicted by some in the leadership in April.

While lawmakers, lobbyists and many others would prefer to come back to Baton Rouge during a fall gathering, the administration may choose to repeat last year’s post-regular session call, when the second special session convened on the same day that the 2016 regular session ended.

The real question, though, is whether lawmakers will act differently if dragged — reluctantly — back into another session.

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