During floor debate in the final week of the regular legislative session, Democratic Rep. Barbara Norton, of Shreveport, apparently had enough of Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges from Denham Springs.
“I am sick of you coming to talk about Israel and those other countries when we need to take care of this budget,” Norton chided Hodges, who champions legislation pushed by national conservative advocacy groups, such as for punishing sanctuary cities, limiting immigration and, in this case, protecting Israeli investments.
“I speak for my constituents and for most of Louisiana that want to stand with our ally,” Hodges replied sharply as House Speaker Taylor Barras repeatedly interjected, “ladies, ladies” trying to maintain decorum.
It’s an unwritten rule that legislators show respect and amity to colleagues. It’s what allows people of vastly differing views to work together.
But conviviality is what has been chucked out by legislators in this session, said more than a dozen representatives and senators on Thursday while leaders negotiated the $28 billion budget. The oft-described “most hostile session, ever” might be a bit hyperbolic in a building where a U.S. senator was murdered after one session and where shards remain in the ceiling from a bomb that exploded before another session.
After a dramatic breakdown in budget negotiations, the Louisiana Legislature finds itself in a familiar place: Addressing the state's finances…
Still, after two months, legislators didn’t agree on a budget – their most important constitutional duty.
“I have never seen it this partisan, never,” said state Sen. Francis Thompson during one of the long waits Thursday while House and Senate leaders negotiated the budget.
Thompson has been a legislator for 42 years and says more members now identify themselves first by national party. They cleave, in the Biblical meaning, to national platform points that offer little wiggle room and are strictly patrolled for deviations by social media, pressure groups and trade associations, he said.
That’s why legislators entered the session in April with high hopes of a sweeping overhaul of Louisiana’s teetering fiscal structure, then couldn’t agree on a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
In simple terms for what is a legislative mare’s nest, the House wanted to cut spending now by $100 million. If revenue projections come up short, we’re covered and won’t have to scramble around whacking programs to balance the budget. If the projections are closer to target, then the state has extra money to start the new year.
Senators agree that some of the money needs to be held in reserve. The Senate wants to fund services, but ask that agencies not spend a portion of that money until later in the fiscal year when we see how things are going. That way, the state is prepared if the tax, royalties and fees come in less than expected but services aren’t eliminated from the get-go.
The House wanted about $200 million set aside but dropped its demand to $100 million. Senate leaders wanted $50 million and wouldn’t budge.
Some in the Republican majority in the House also voiced concern that compromise would allow Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to claim an accomplishment, according to four participants speaking in separate interviews on condition of anonymity because each feared being punished by their colleagues.
A literal last-minute flurry of parliamentary rules tried to force a vote on the Senate version that the House leaders wanted rejected.
It was very apparent that New Orleans Democratic Rep. Walt Leger III was far more familiar with parliamentary procedure than Barras, R-New Iberia. Barras ate up precious minutes being briefed by his lawyers. But the delay kept that vote from actually happening.
Hence, the special session Edwards had suggested as “a precaution” began 30 minutes later. Legislators now have until June 19 to approve a budget.
Under the rules, the state budget, House Bill 1, has to go through the process again.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said he’s deciding whether to file on Monday the same bill that the House approved in early May and the same one the Senate changed in early June. Or he could make some adjustments to the legislation that authorizes spending for next year.
“We can amend House Bill 1 to be what we want it to be,” Henry said.
Usually, for those who leave late in the day, the State Capitol is dramatically illuminated and a beam of light from the top tower shines onto Huey P. Long’s grave in the nearby park.
But the lights weren’t on the night the Legislature failed to pass a state budget.
Instead, Capitol Park was illuminated only by clown-colored lights twirling on the spokes of a bicycle club’s outing as they glided through the complex where the Louisiana government meets.
The State Capitol itself was dark.