Louisiana legislators will convene in a special session soon after a new governor is sworn in.
That much is sure.
They’ll probably work to close the gaps between spending promised and revenue collected, problems inherited from the sitting governor. They may take a whack at fixing the way the state government operating budget is put together.
They won’t raise taxes, but tax breaks will be rolled back, promised monies will be undedicated, and services will be cut. Precisely which ones are still secret and likely to remain so until after the Nov. 21 general election.
Aides for Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter have been questioning legislative fiscal and committee staffers about possibilities. But they’re not sharing specifics.
“Both gentlemen have something in mind already,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville. “They don’t want to be controversial right now.”
None of the exemptions or statutory dedications likely to be targeted magically appeared in state law. Each has its own constituency — voters who, if their entitlement is messed with, likely will take it out on the politician at the ballot box.
So, like Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” for ending the Vietnam War, which was rolled out during the 1968 presidential campaign, Vitter and Edwards essentially are asking voters and legislators to trust them until after the runoff.
In the meantime, the legislators are talking among themselves, said Hammond Republican Rep. Chris Broadwater, who, because he is running for House speaker, is chatting up a lot of House members. They’re discussing what exemptions they’d be willing to roll back and what statutory dedications they’d be OK ending.
House Majority Leader Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, whose job it is to corral votes, says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of the legislative ideas that were sidelined in the last session resurrected again.
House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said his sense is that legislators are looking at raising revenue through ideas, such as expanding Medicaid and thereby drawing down federal monies, or reducing expenditures on tax exemptions.
“There is a growing consensus around, at least, the mechanics of how to do it but not the specifics of which reductions will occur,” Leger said.
Time is tight. And legislators can’t go into special session just to see what happens.
Legally, the governor makes the “call” and the Legislature can convene at least five days later. But the governor’s “call” needs to outline what issues can be considered during no more than 30 calendar days.
Politically, governors like to call special sessions as soon as possible to tap into residual optimism in the glow around inauguration.
But a whole lot of people need to be hired, legislative leadership needs to be chosen and bills to make specific changes need to be drafted and lobbied during the 51 days — 35 workdays — between the Nov. 21 election and the Jan. 11 inauguration, which include Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Then 45 workdays pass until the Legislature’s regularly scheduled session — which isn’t supposed to deal with fiscal issues this year — convenes March 14.
The most important thing to remember, says Senate President John Alario, who has been doing this since both candidates were in middle school, is that coalitions need to be built to get something passed. And that takes time.
“At some point, they’re going to have to stop talking about a special session and narrow it down to a bill with specifics in it that will spell out what needs to be done in black and white,” Alario said.
Then the new administration will have to sell that plan to legislators, special interests and the public. That part of the budget revamp will depend on the new governor’s style.
Going back to Nixon: The prickly conservative who had led the “who lost China” movement in the 1950s also recognized that only he was able to meet Mao Zedong and reopen contact with the world’s largest country. Similarly, Vitter could raise revenue over the objections of his “cuts only” conservative base. “Where else are they going to go?” Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat asked.
On the other hand, Edwards was the key to building a coalition between the conservative “fiscal hawks” and the more liberal black caucus in 2013. The factions together were able to pass a balanced budget that contained some structural fixes and less one-time money than the Jindal administration had sought.
It’s not just a question of the specifics but also of personalities.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/