With less than a week to go, the acrimonious 2017 session of the Louisiana Legislature is poised to be remembered more for the ideas discarded than for the bills that will be passed.
House and Senate leaders on both sides are pretty sure they can approve a $29 billion state spending plan for next fiscal year before the session adjourns at 6 p.m. Thursday. But if they can’t, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a call, as a precaution, for legislators to reconvene 30 minutes later.
That probably won’t be necessary, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, told The Advocate. Although he hasn’t finished studying the changes the Senate made to the state budget, he said he thinks a deal can be reached.
“This is all part of the process,” Henry said.
The budget, along with a package of 10 bills that collectively would overhaul how Louisiana charges and punishes criminals, are the high points. Both likely will be passed this week.
Beyond that, however, surprisingly few of the 949 bills filed at the beginning of the legislative session have found their way to the governor’s desk. Only 14 have been signed into law so far.
Motorists won’t pay more for gas despite the support of the business community, the governor and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, for more revenue to address the state’s crowded and ill-maintained highways.
The sponsor of the bill that would have increased the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon, Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Steve Carter, withdrew the measure after it became apparent it wouldn’t pass. An angry Carter blamed anti-tax groups, such as the Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity, and his own state Republican Party, for spreading misleading information and applying political pressure to defeat the tax.
But two pieces of legislation aimed at building voter confidence in the gas tax increase are still pending and are scheduled for votes this week. Senate Bill 57 would ban the use of road and bridge money for State Police. And House Bill 598 would revamp Department of Transportation and Development operations.
Legislators took a stab at regulating ride-hailing services statewide. But that bill failed when cities, like New Orleans, complained they would receive millions of dollars less from state control than had been negotiated in contracts with Uber and Lyft.
Efforts to punish “sanctuary cities,” in which local law enforcement don’t automatically check immigration status, passed the House to be defeated in Senate committee.
And several proposals to rein in the rising costs of TOPS, by setting residency standards and increasing academic minimums, also didn’t make it.
The popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, however, is on track to be fully funded at about $233 million to pay college tuition for the nearly 50,000 recipients.
Going into session, several legislators were optimistic about the possibility of abolishing the death penalty inasmuch as the state hadn’t executed anyone who didn’t volunteer in almost 15 years. That bill was rejected by a House committee moments after one sponsor, Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro and a former sheriff, surprised his co-author, Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia and a former State Police commander, by saying he didn’t support the legislation.
Racial and partisan divides were exposed by efforts to override local governments that choose to remove Confederate monuments. The Legislative Black Caucus walked out of House proceedings after the lower chamber approved the bill that was later defeated in Senate committee.
Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, angered at being told in committee “to get over” slavery, said national political rhetoric had created an atmosphere that allowed for racist talk in Louisiana.
The Senate unanimously adopted Senate Concurrent Resolution 102 to "affirm the need for civility in political discourse and debate." It is scheduled for a House vote on Tuesday.
Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, pushed the resolution the day after Texas legislators in Austin had to be separated in an argument over a sanctuary cities issue.
The use of traffic cameras to ticket speeders has provoked much anger among motorists. Legislation to address the issue met with mixed results. One bill demanding a voter referendum was crushed in a House committee. Another measure that would require signs to be posted near the locations of the cameras is headed to the governor’s desk.
In education, a revamp of how teachers are evaluated and restrictions on how vouchers are used didn’t make it. A ban on paddling in public schools also was defeated. A bill restricting the paddling of students with disabilities cleared the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.
But the education bill that has sparked anger, tears and charges of double dealing is one to change the name of the state’s lone residential high school.
Senate Bill 1, which is scheduled for a House vote on Monday, would add the name of former state Rep. Jimmy Long to the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts in Natchitoches. Long played a huge role in getting the school launched in 1983, which serves up to 360 gifted students from around the state in a collegelike setting.
But many alumni, who are waging a furious lobbying campaign against the measure, say the renaming would diminish the school’s reputation nationally.
Legislators entered the session brimming with ideas about redesigning the way Louisiana gathers and spends public dollars. They hoped to stabilize the state’s finances by addressing Louisiana’s creaky fiscal structure and thereby finding enough new money to cover a $1 billion loss of revenue when a sales tax expires on July 1, 2018.
First up was Edwards’ plan to tax businesses’ gross receipts. That measure met stiff resistance from the GOP-dominated House, which must consider tax bills first.
The House went on to defeat several major revenue-raising measures, and it appears unlikely that any of them will be revived before the session ends.
For years, legislators have complained about not being able to access hundreds of millions of dollars whose use is locked in by state law. But given a chance Friday to remove the legal protections on some of the “dedicated funds” and open up more than $900 million, the House decided no. The state has 393 legally dedicated funds.
“We’re not actually focused on trying to solve our fiscal cliff or our tax reform problems,” state Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central said. “The governor hasn’t led. No one in this chamber has led in trying to get bipartisan reform.”
The House also sidetracked measures that would adopt the recommendations of a task force that spent 2016 studying the tax system.
And a Senate committee on Saturday rejected measures that would ask voters to replace the state’s graduated individual and corporate income tax rates with flat rates in exchange for individuals and companies losing the right to deduct their federal tax payments on their state tax returns.
“With the 2017 legislative session winding down, it’s hard for those who wanted to permanently fix Louisiana’s uncertain fiscal situation to view the session with anything but disappointment,” Council for a Better Louisiana wrote.