It helps to keep post-traumatic stress disorder in the back of your mind when wondering why the Louisiana Legislature is so slow to get started this session.
Most lawmakers agree that not much has been done as they begin the fourth week of the regular session — at an average daily cost of $25,000 for the Senate and $35,000 for the House. But it’s because they’ve been fighting pretty much nonstop since being sworn in Jan. 11. And their legislative advent began with an often bitter special session that aimed at balancing the budget (which they failed to do) and that ended four days before the regular session began on March 14.
“It was like a war,” Franklin state Rep. Sam Jones, the House Democratic vote counter, said of the special session. The new recruits had to be hurried through training, crowded aboard Higgins troop transport boats, and then dropped on the beach under heavy machine-gun fire.
Thirty-two of the 105 House members were brand-new and most of them had run, just a few weeks before, on “no taxes, cut spending” platforms. Yet, as soon as the bow ramp dropped, they were asked to raise taxes, Jones said.
After intense combat on taxes, a lot of the legislators returned to face the wide variety of issues, often technical and mundane, that make up regular legislative sessions, like updating the building code and renaming highways. (Constitutionally, they cannot consider tax proposals in sessions during even-numbered years — that’s why a “special” was necessary.)
The 2016 Legislature is more serious, but more factionalized and more attuned to national politics than previous bodies, said state Sen. Francis Thompson, the Delhi Democrat who in January began his 41st year as a state legislator.
Previous legislatures happily headed down trails in pursuit of bills that, say, outlawed cockfighting or legalized chicken boxing. Or they spent time with Stephen Colbert talking about measures to criminalize wearing droopy pants in public.
Not so, in the case of the class of 2016.
Well, some time will be spent this spring arguing over whether to make Gulf Fritillary the state’s official butterfly — the bright orange insect better known as the “passion butterfly.” And debate over whether to establish a state minimum wage of $8.50 by January 2018 likely will be fierce.
But, it’s how to solve a uniquely local problem — revamping the state budget — without running afoul of national politics that awakens legislators with a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Because lawmakers are legally forbidden from raising taxes in a regular session, the only way to balance the budget will be to chop about $750 million in spending from state services.
“Are we going to eliminate services, hospitals, universities, needed road repairs? Are we going to downsize law enforcement, get rid of museums? What is the purpose of government?” Thompson said was the real issue confronting this Legislature. “We have come to a crossroads in this state.”
The GOP has long rejected Keynesian economics — which sees government spending as a spur to the economy, a theory that has helped pull the nation out of recessions since the 1930s. Republicans favor a more Darwinian approach of “starving the beast” to shed the costs of government spending, thereby freeing money for the private sector investment that stimulates growth.
But in Louisiana, eight years of lower taxes and more exemptions through reduced government spending hasn’t really translated into a booming economy. It has led to serial budget deficits.
Thompson says one big impact of shedding state government services has been to shift those responsibilities to municipal and parish governments who now have to pick up the tab. “We’re raising taxes without us raising taxes,” he said.
House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry bristles at the suggestion representatives are not leaning into their work yet. The special session postponed subcommittee hearings that look at specific aspects of the state budget and, besides, the governor still hasn’t disclosed how he’s going to apply the newly raised taxes and what services he plans to cut. That should be coming out soon, and then things should really start rolling, the Metairie Republican said.
But Henry agrees with Thompson that current circumstances require lawmakers to decide what role government will play in this state.
“Because of the budget situation, all members are looking at what services we provide and what we can no longer afford to do,” Henry said. “That’s what’s on the minds of members right now.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.