Political Horizons: Claitor tries to end last-minute chaos _lowres

Senator Dan Claitor

Legislators are quietly going about changing their procedures in hopes of stopping the madness that afflicts the last minutes of, seemingly, every legislative session.

“Where people fly in the clouds without instruments, they sometimes to run into a mountain,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, who drafted a resolution that would require those last-minute agreements on legislation — called conference reports — to be finished and distributed the day before the last day of any session.

Though his frustration boiled over from the chaos of March 9 — the mandated end of the special session aimed at filling the largest deficit in state history — last-day confusion is not rare in the Louisiana Legislature.

The iconic image of the 2015 legislative session, for instance, is Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, sounding like a tobacco auctioneer as the House plowed through revenue-raising bills that legislators didn’t really want on their voting records going into campaign season. June 6, the last day of the current assembly, likely will be similarly chaotic.

But it was the March 9 free-for-all that really irked Claitor and others.

Only in the last few minutes of that special session did legislators “put their big-boy pants on,” in Claitor’s words, to cut spending to popular programs and increasing taxes by about $1 billion. Unfortunately, that last-minute scramble left representatives and senators voting without really knowing what was in the bills.

Mistakes were made.

One of many surprises that popped out from the last-minute scrum is that the Saints are now free to leave New Orleans. (Saints executives have told state officials they won’t take advantage of the state breaking the 2009 contract.)

But, it’s just this type of errant foot-shooting that Claitor wants to combat by changing the rules.

This Saints hiccup came about because Republicans wanted to raise sales taxes 1.25 cents, while Democrats held the line at an increase of one cent. Democrats won.

Unfortunately, more money was needed, so on the last day, House Bill 61 became the pivotal vehicle. As Plan B, HB61 proposed ending many of the exemptions of all four cents of the sales taxes charged by the state through June 30, then returning the tax breaks over the next couple years. Unwittingly, the Saints’ exemption was included.

State Rep. Jay Morris, the Monroe Republican who sponsored the measure, said he had only a couple of hours to review the conference report, in which three senators and three representatives came to an agreement on the final wording. He focused on how the exemptions applied to machinery sales. He didn’t know how the wording impacted the Saints contract.

HB61 was approved less than nine minutes before the constitutionally ordered end of the special session.

New Orleans state Sen. JP Morrell had caught the Saints problem and repaired it in another bill. As minutes flew by, senators discovered that the sales tax legislation, despite the agreement, stated the hike would be 1.25 cents.

Turned out that the bill itself was fine, but in the haste staffers forgot to change the summary, a passage that explains what a bill is supposed to be about. The sales tax legislation passed with 97 seconds to go.

There was no time to take up Morrell’s fix for the Saints. So, legally, the state has to collect sales taxes from the NFL team and thereby violate the contract.

Claitor returned to his office that night, deciding then and there to come up with a bill or a rules change, whatever, to keep that scene from happening again.

“Sen. Claitor and I worked closely on the resolution,” Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said Thursday. “All of us were embarrassed by the way the session ended.”

Claitor uses HB61 as Exhibit 1 in his effort to win support for his proposed Joint Rule No. 19.1, which would essentially move the bedlam up a day. At least that would allow time for lawmakers to read the bills before voting on them, he said.

Democracy is not tidy.

His resolution was amended before passing the Senate. It was substantially rewritten in the House and Governmental Affairs committee last week to harmonize better with House rules.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 15 now must be approved by the full House, then return to the Senate, which will have to agree with the wording changes. With two weeks left to go, SCR15 is poised to become one of those last-minute decisions.

Claitor says that without the change, however, the Legislature is doomed to last-day chaos over and over again. “Isn’t that the definition of insanity?” Claitor asked.

“It is the definition,” Morrell replied.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com and is on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/