Louisiana legislators are entering the final day of the regular session with a light list of items left undecided.
The real heavy lifting will begin in the coming days as the Legislature heads into its second special session of the year to try to hash out a final deal on the nearly $26 billion spending plan for the budget that takes effect July 1.
Late Sunday night, lawmakers approved a budget deal but House and Senate leaders shared concerns about the cuts needed as the state faces an estimated $600 million shortfall in the coming year.
The special session, which begins at 6:30 p.m. Monday — 30 minutes after the regular session ends — will give lawmakers one more chance to try to bridge that gap. Gov. John Bel Edwards presented lawmakers with a “menu” of revenue-raising options that will be vetted in the coming days. The special session must end by midnight June 23.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, each said the special session will give lawmakers a chance to come up with more money to fund the state’s safety net hospitals and the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
“I certainly would have hoped to see hospitals and TOPS a little farther along.” Barras said.
The budget doesn’t include Barras’ proposal to pull $74 million from other funds — including public safety and the Louisiana Department of Health — to help fund those.
“Those were not surplus funds,” Alario said. “We didn’t think they could stand those cuts.”
Legislators of both chambers said that negotiations were friendly, despite the drastic differences between the proposals put up in both chambers.
“It wasn’t 100 percent of what I would like, and it wasn’t 100 percent of what the Senate would like,” said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. “Is it perfect? No.”
That largely was driven by the shortfall.
Lawmakers, during a special session earlier this year, raised $1.2 billion — largely through tax hikes — to spend in the coming year, but fiscal analysts said the state remained $600 million shy of preventing cuts to state services.
The final version of the budget protects funding for waiver programs that provide health care services to the elderly and disabled.
The budget provides about half the funding needed to prevent cuts to TOPS scholarships.
The Legislature came in for more than five hours on Sunday to hash out a budget agreement, but much of the work took place behind the scenes.
As they waited, legislators milled about the chambers waiting for the next step. Some held impromptu singalongs. At one point, the theme song to the game show “Jeopardy” played from the House floor.
After LSU’s baseball game began, House members watched on screens at their desks or listened on small radios, often cheering when LSU scored or made a good play.
The Legislature heads into its final day of the 2016 regular session with little left on its plate except House Bill 2, which outlines the state’s priorities in funding construction projects.
Many items on Edwards’ agenda already have been approved, save for two notable items that were key to his campaign last fall. He also won several battles in the budget.
Lawmakers rejected his plan to increase the minimum wage and a bill that aimed to require employers to pay men and women the same wages for the same work — both campaign priorities for Edwards.
Edwards, during a recent meeting with The Advocate editorial board, said those two bills were his biggest disappointments of the session.
“Especially with so many single women with children, we are keeping those children in poverty because we are being unfair to their mothers,” he said of the Legislature’s failure to pass the equal pay bill. “I cannot believe that the state of Louisiana isn’t better than that.”
He said that most other states have passed minimum wage laws higher than the federal $7.25 an hour.
“You’ve got some people who don’t even believe in the concept of minimum wage,” he said. “I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Lawmakers approved significant changes to TOPS that aim to rein in costs and outline how money will be distributed when the nearly $300 million program isn’t fully funded.
Also on the higher education front, voters will get to decide this fall whether tuition should be set by the college and university governing boards. Currently, any tuition changes must win support from two-thirds of state legislators.
Lawmakers approved several anti-abortion measures over the past three months, including a bill that will make women in Louisiana wait 72 hours from first meeting with a doctor before they can get an abortion and one that would bar the state from providing any funding to Planned Parenthood if the organization begins performing abortions at its new New Orleans facility.
The Legislature on Sunday gave final approval to an Edwards-backed bill that would raise the age for someone to be tried as a juvenile. Currently, 17-year-olds are charged as adults. That will go up to 18 when Edwards signs Senate Bill 324.
While much of the focus this session fell on the budget, lawmakers passed several other bills that grabbed headlines, including one that will allow hunters to wear “blaze pink” as a safety color in Louisiana, in addition to the traditional hunter orange.
A bill that adds police and firefighters to protected classes in the state’s hate crimes law, also drew attention because it’s the first of its kind in the country.