This couldn’t have been the best tone to start a contentious special session on taxes.
The House’s refusal to pass a multibillion-dollar state construction budget in the final minutes of the regular legislative session started the tax session off minutes later with an air of distrust and resentment between the House and the Senate, and even between rank-and-file House members and some of their leaders.
“In my 22 years here, I’ve never seen the level of distrust between the House and Senate that I see,” said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, a former House member.
The meltdown over the construction budget, known as the capital outlay bill, followed disagreements that marked the end of a special session earlier this year. In that earlier session, senators complained they were jammed in last-minute haggling over sales tax bills and barely knew what they were passing in the final frenzied minutes of the session.
The capital outlay bill is critical to doing highway improvements, economic development projects, college construction, building repairs and other work around the state. To keep projects from stalling, lawmakers need to have a new construction budget approved by July 1.
House leadership’s refusal to pass bill the before the regular session ended — and the decision to drag it into the tricky tax debates of a special session — drew angry criticism from senators and from some House members, who unsuccessfully tried to force a vote on the bill.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, was largely blamed for the stalemate. He didn’t show up to try to strike a deal on the measure the day before the regular session ended, and he let the bill linger on the House calendar for days without action.
While they didn’t directly explain the absenteeism, Abramson and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said Senate changes put the bill in such disarray that it needed a lengthy rewrite.
“It wasn’t about the projects,” Abramson said. “It was about the technical and legal issues.”
Senators accused the House of refusing to negotiate over the bill in the final days and hours of the regular session, after the Senate rejected the House approach aimed at shrinking the size of the budget to more closely match the projects to available money.
“The House had the bill for over two months. We had it for one week. And yet they claim they did not have enough time. How much time do they need?” said Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Chairman J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, as it became clear the House wouldn’t vote on the bill in the regular session’s final hours.
As they moved into the special session, House leaders sought to try to diffuse the tension. Barras and Abramson met with Senate leaders and said they continue to talk with their counterparts on the other side about how to craft the bill.
The House quickly drew up and passed a new version of the construction budget, sending it to the Senate with a 90-8 vote Thursday. House leaders insist they have no intention of tanking the budget bill this time, in the session that must end June 23.
Barras, R-New Iberia, described the reworked version “a cleaner bill” that doesn’t run the risk of invalidating projects or state borrowing plans. Senate leaders said that was never a threat.
Recent talk of the bill has almost appeared to be an open therapy session in the House, with discussions of needing to rebuild trust with each other and the public.
Four House members have filed duplicate construction budget bills, as backups in case they don’t think Abramson is negotiating in good faith with the Senate. Abramson publicly committed “to make sure the bill gets through the process.”
“We cannot afford to repeat this mistake yet again,” said state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, urged his colleagues to move on and “do the people’s business.”
Suspicion and wariness appear likely to be part of that business.
Follow Melinda Deslatte of The Associated Press on Twitter, @melindadeslatte.