Leaders of the Louisiana House and Senate say they are working to repair the increasingly frayed relationship between the two chambers as they head into what could become a tense 21/2-week battle over the state budget.
Tensions flared in the final hours of the regular session Monday as senators accused the House of not working in good faith on the state construction spending bill, forcing it into the special session where it quickly sailed past its first hurdle Tuesday.
The chamber’s top leaders say they are ready to move past the latest spat, but tensions remain as legislators attempt to raise revenue to bridge a $600 million gap in the budget that begins July 1 that threatens funding for the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, safety net hospitals and colleges throughout the state, among other programs.
“You keep building the relationship and the trust between one another,” Senate President John Alario said after meeting with House Speaker Taylor Barras Tuesday morning.
At about 4 p.m. a day earlier, Alario, R-Westwego, stood on the Senate floor and publicly accused House leadership of “breaching” a private conversation with him and misrepresenting his remarks on the fate of House Bill 2, which contains billions of dollars for construction projects throughout the state.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, called Monday “a stressful day.”
“Everyone’s nerves are raw from being here since Feb. 14,” he said.
But it’s not the first time the chambers have ended a session at odds and with the Senate lobbing allegations of mistreatment at the House.
The first special session earlier this year ended with Alario tearing up in frustration over a last-minute flurry of bills that zipped through in the final 15 minutes with many legislators unclear of their contents.
“For the second time in a row, I believe we were taken advantage of and more importantly the process was taken advantage of,” Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. “Whoever pulled that stunt yesterday in the House showed a complete disrespect for what we do.”
“The ego in me wants to strike back, but the public servant in me knows that’s not what’s right,” he said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat and former member of the House, also expressed frustration.
During a news conference just minutes after the regular session ended without a completed construction bill, Edwards slammed the House — without naming names — for a lack of leadership. He said he included HB2 in his call for the special session just in case a deal couldn’t be reached.
“It was in the event that the House and Senate really couldn’t work out their differences, not that one side wouldn’t try,” he said.
The House Ways & Means Committee quickly approved the state construction budget bill Tuesday, but senators say questions remain about the lower chamber’s intentions.
“It’s a brand new bill,” said Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Chairman JP Morrell, D-New Orleans. “It deletes crucial infrastructure projects and then provides additional funding to those at a lower priority.”
His House counterpart, fellow New Orleans Democrat and Ways & Means Chairman Neil Abramson’s absence drew attention on Sunday and Monday as legislators wondered when HB2 would be brought up.
Abramson said that Morrell’s concerns were because of “inadvertent” mistakes made in the bill’s drafting and that it will be tailored to match what the Senate wants.
But Morrell said he and his committee members remain skeptical of Abramson’s intentions.
“I don’t think the House has some concentrated plan to try to get one over on the Senate,” he said.
Abramson and Morrell notably didn’t meet on HB2 in the final days of the session. Morrell said he attempted to begin a conversation but never heard back. Barras said he wasn’t aware that the two had not spoken since the Senate sent its version of the bill to the House.
“I find it odd,” Barras said. “I think there’s communication on both ends that could have been improved.”
Barras, R-New Iberia, said the House wasn’t playing politics by holding up HB2, which he blocked from being brought up for a vote on the final day of the regular session due to what he described as “technical and legal” errors in the bill.
“It’s billions of dollars on a lot of important projects,” Barras said.
He said he’s aware that the House action appeared political but he “can’t stress enough” that the motivations were strictly technical with the bill.
“I’m trying to take the politicalness out of it,” he said.
But the move was enough to have some questioning his leadership Tuesday morning and whether his position is at risk.
Barras, a banker who busted through the ranks earlier this year from relative obscurity, won a tense battle for his leadership post that many have seen as a signal of the chamber’s new-found independence that also appears to be widening the wedge between it and the Senate.
Louisiana typically affords the governor the unusual power of picking legislative leaders. Edwards, a Democrat who took office Jan. 11, had backed Democratic Rep. Walt Leger III, of New Orleans, in his bid to become the speaker, but Republicans rebelled.
When Barras recommended that the chamber not take up HB2 on Monday, the chamber voted 52-49 in favor of a symbolic expression of its desire to side-step him.
Minden Rep. Gene Reynolds, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters Tuesday morning that he viewed the vote as a direct rebuke of Barras and openly wondered whether Barras’ future as speaker is at risk.
Harris said he believes that Republicans are still firmly behind Barras. He said speculation otherwise is “utterly ridiculous.”
“I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Harris said.