Alford: The Pace Of Things To Come

What happens when you take a Louisiana Legislature that’s earning a reputation for disfunction and tell its members that they have just nine weeks to do a job that usually takes three months?

The end result could be fantastic. Goodwill, even if it’s forged by the pressures of politics, would be a welcome addition to the Capitol. And it would definitely serve as a “wave of momentum,” as Gov. John Bel Edwards put it in a speech this week, to transition lawmakers away from the ongoing regular session and into the second special session of the year. (Or rather the ninth session of this term!)

That’s the plan for now. The governor is working with Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras to end this non-fiscal regular session ahead of schedule, possibly in mid-May, in order to convene the year’s second special session — “at no additional expense to taxpayers.”

The savings would arrive because Capitol players intend to end the second special session of 2018 on the same day the regular session would have adjourned, on June 4. It’s a solid public relations move by the administration. Plus, if lawmakers happen to get sideways on their collective charge (again), the governor would be able to call the House and Senate back into yet another special session sometime before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

The suggestion, of course, is that the end product of the regular might not be so fantastic. Which would in turn lead to sketchy special session in mid-May. But before we can get there, lawmakers will have to survive what promises to be a grueling pace in the coming weeks.

You could tell things were going to be different on the first day of the regular session, which was this past Monday. That opening salvo traditionally offers legislators a quiet afternoon following the governor’s opening remarks. But that wasn’t the case this week.

Instead, the Senate adjourned and three of its committees met to hear 34 bills. How serious are lawmakers? Sen. Fred Mills, the chair of Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said his panel will endeavor to consider 10 to 12 bills per week. The House, meanwhile, had 11 committee meetings slated over a three-day period.

For now it appears as if lawmakers will enjoy their customary Fridays off, which is helpful to catch up on not only business and district relations, but also family time. That indulgence, however, probably won’t last. Lawmakers will have to grind it out, stay ahead of schedule and avoid petty politics — three things lawmakers aren’t that great at doing.

The responsibility of avoiding delays may fall with the Legislature’s chairmen. They need to streamline their agendas, dodge meaningless debates and focus policy spotlights on the most substantive proposals. Without that eye to attention, the pace of the regular session alone will start to gnaw away at what little goodwill exists.

All of this might sound trivial when weighed against the real-life implications of the state budget. But those who know the process best are also aware of the incredibly thin ice on which the Capitol sits.

For example, there were unmistakable signs of division in the House on the first day of the regular session. Before the first vote could even be taken, Rep. Kenny Havard resigned his chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee. Citing concerns about the gridlock in the House and the leadership in place, he told his colleagues, “Today is the day I want to get back to doing the people's work and vote my conscience.”

This followed on the heels of Rep. Gene Reynolds letting go of his chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus last week, in the wake of the special session deflating. Caucus members were still trying to determine who would lead them next as the regular session convened.

At the same time, Reynolds has teamed up with GOP Rep. Julie Stokes to form a new caucus of centrist representatives. The goal is to create a powerful swing group and to pave the way for compromises. But some longtime lawmakers wonder if the time is right for another faction, especially as the Black Caucus is seeking to independently find its political footing and Republicans are trying to mend fractures in their own delegation.  

The good news is that the projected shortfall, thought to be around $1 billion during the recent special session, is now closer to $700 million thanks to a revenue bump from Congress’s federal tax overhaul. The bad news is that there are plenty of distractions in the regular session to keep lawmakers looking elsewhere.

While the regular session will not play host to tax proposals, it will become the playing field for a big package of gambling bills and a handful of calls for constitutional conventions. The Louisiana State Employees' Retirement System is trying to reconfigure its pension, several departments are asking for fee increases and the conversation over the future of the TOPS scholarship program is already growing heated.

Lawmakers are expected to debate gun control, judgments against the state, equal pay, a higher minimum wage, Medicaid access, budget transparency, texting while driving, the death penalty, public records and the definition of marriage. In the mix are also measures related to higher education management, occupational licenses, abortion, hazing on university campuses, teacher tenure and a bevy of other policy topics.

It’s still too early to to tell what the pace of the regular session will do to an already-frayed elected body or, more importantly, to the signature bottleneck in the House. But we do know that lawmakers are going to have to work harder than usual to do the right thing.

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