The big issue that loomed over the legislative session, which ends at 6 p.m. Monday, is a state budget that Gov. John Bel Edwards last week called a “big mess.”
Louisiana is $600 million short of having enough money to pay the expected bills for the fiscal year that starts in 26 days. Legislators get another go at it in the special session.
During the past three months, however, most of the fighting has been in the culture wars, rather than the fiscal ones. Or as Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand put it, albeit using earthier language, focusing on national wedge issues aimed at energizing party bases.
He was speaking primarily against a bill that would penalize “sanctuary cities,” but his comments could extend to more than two dozen of the “social issues” that filled legislative time — from further protecting pastors from being sued if they refuse to marry gay people to halting contact with an Islamic group that claims to be trying to build a better understanding between Muslims and police. (The group has no office in Louisiana.)
There were bills to increase minimum wage and another to provide an avenue to parity for employees who feel they’re being paid less because of their gender — key planks in the national Democratic Party’s platform.
The budget itself is part of the reason for these legislative rabbit trails, says Barry Erwin, who heads the Council for a Better Louisiana.
Much of the work on the budget takes places behind closed doors by isolated pockets of legislators, bureaucrats and their staffs. In earlier sessions, the small groups of House Republicans, House Democrats, senators and the governor’s staffers frequently crossed paths and floated their individual ideas, spurring a larger conversation.
This year, the various groups worked pretty much alone and rarely interacted, leaving, for instance, a few Senate Finance Committee members to learn in the newspaper what their counterparts in the House had in mind.
The discussion never got broad, and the only clear result is that despite optimistic promises that they could cut enough spending to balance the budget, they couldn’t, Erwin said.
Some House members didn’t want to cut the way Edwards and the Senate recommended. But they were unwilling to reduce spending in the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the middle-class entitlement that pays college tuition, or to close charity hospitals that, in addition to being huge economic drivers for their communities, provide health care for the poor (for everyone in some parts of the state).
“So, you ended with this big, big issue that took up the time of only a handful of legislators. Everybody else was pretty much just twiddling their thumbs,” Erwin said.
And that’s how Louisiana ended up — in the middle of a historic budget crisis — with a legislative session that will be remembered for legislators talking past one another on social issues.
It’ll be remembered for state Rep. Kenny Havard’s satire of parent-government by seeking to amend weight and age requirements onto anti-human trafficking legislation that would regulate the age of strippers. His point, lost through inarticulate delivery, was that legislators yammering on about too much government interference were being hypocritical by setting age limits on a single job in dance clubs.
Equally tone-deaf was state Rep. Valarie Hodges’ proposal to require schoolchildren to recite a portion of the Declaration of Independence. Focusing on the undeniable importance of people needing to know this founding document, she missed the point that generations of African-Americans were refused the right to vote by Jim Crow segregationists if they could not recite Thomas Jefferson’s words.
These “poll tests,” which white voters didn’t have to take, are not some relic of the distant past but were outlawed only in 1970 — meaning, in Baton Rouge Democratic Rep. Patricia Smith’s words, people are still alive who had to live through the indignity of being forced to recite in order to access a fundamental right.
About the only issue most everyone agreed on was adding more barriers to abortions. They all passed with little opposition, and most have been signed into law already.
Perhaps another reason for the legislative attention deficit disorder is that lack of a shared vision.
Edwards consistently eschews opportunities to reach for “We choose to go to the moon” inspiration. Instead, he is more pragmatic, saying his sole focus is fixing the state’s financial situation.
Asked about the vision thing halfway through the session, Edwards told The Advocate, “The sooner we make the hard decisions, the better off we’ll all be.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs. theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.