“Nerves are raw” was how House Republican Caucus Chairman Lance Harris explained the confrontation during the first hours of the second special session.
Legislators had ended one session and began anew 30 minutes later because the Louisiana House, freed six months ago from the generations-old headlock that governors had on its independence, failed to get the job done.
They’ve been working since Valentine’s Day, and now they’re stuck in Baton Rouge until at least June 23 — hopefully, to find a way to fully fund TOPS and keep the public hospitals open.
Frustrated representatives took it out on New Orleans Democratic Rep. Neil Abramson, who as chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, on his own, held up a vote to approve the “capital outlay” bill that would appropriate money for construction projects. It should have passed both houses and the governor’s desk before the regularly scheduled session of the Legislature ended Monday night. It didn’t.
“I object to your insult that the rest of us are too stupid to pass a bill out of here,” state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, took to the House floor to tell Abramson. “No one believes you did due diligence with the Senate, and it caused us damage going forward not only with these bills, but maybe other bills in the future.”
Republican state Rep. Patrick Connick, of Harvey, then continued on the theme that Abramson had failed to do what should have been simple enough: meet with his counterpart in the state Senate, Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Chairman JP Morrell, D-New Orleans.
“The frustration that I have, that many of us have, is that we sat here for days doing nothing, and now we have no plan going forward. There is no communication between the House and the Senate. That’s got to change,” Connick said.
(Abramson and Morrell eventually worked out a compromise that the House approved Thursday – four days into the second special session.)
But this isn’t new. The first special session in March ended with Senate President John Alario, the Westwego Republican who has been a legislator since 1972, tearing up in frustration over the chaos that led to passing more than $1 billion in new taxes in the final 15 minutes.
“It’s really a matter of growing pains, of having an independent Legislature,” said Steven Procopio, policy director at the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, the nonprofit government policy study group.
Going back at least to Huey Long, Louisiana governors have picked legislative leaders who would do pretty much what they were told. That ended on Jan. 11, when the Republican majority in the House refused to elect the speaker backed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and instead picked Republican Taylor Barras, a banker from New Iberia.
It used to be that the governor and leadership would go behind closed doors, make the decisions on what services and construction projects would get money, then tell the legislators how to vote, explained state Rep. Kenny Havard, the St. Francisville Republican who was one of the chief architects of the representatives’ coup. All this big-tent stuff is new to the newly liberated legislators, so they fell back into the old ways of drafting the budgets behind closed doors. Problem was they didn’t consult anybody, and without a consensus, lawmakers’ votes were in disarray.
“I thought they were talking. It came as a surprise to me that they weren’t,” Havard said. “But this is the first year of our independence. We’re learning as we go. Hopefully, we’ve learned something.”
Eight years ago when Sen. Jim Fannin was a representative and chosen to lead the House Appropriations Committee, which authorizes spending on the state’s operating budget, legislators had talked about grabbing some of the governor’s budget-drafting power.
He remembers the idea was to split up budgeting duties. Let the Transportation committee, for instance, decide how to spend the highway dollars. He balked, believing that the process needs to be centralized.
“Somebody has got to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. If you’re going to manage a budget, it’s got to all come through one place,” the Jonesboro Republican said. But this isn’t a video game — absent an all-powerful governor dictating terms, communication is the way to build consensus.
“There’s nothing wrong with the process,” agreed Jan Moller, who heads the Louisiana Budget Project, which advocates for low- and moderate-income people. “But the process always works better when leaders talk to one another. I don’t think the breakdowns we’ve seen the past few sessions are the fault of the process, it’s the fault of the people.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com and is on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/