It’s hard to pinpoint just when the special legislative session’s frantic conclusion crossed the line between haphazard governance and full-on farce.
Was it when the Senate, desperately trying to make order of what the House was sending over in the session’s final hour, had to rescind an amendment it had “inadvertently” tacked onto the wrong bill?
When House-Senate conference committees were thrown together at the last moment, a sign that negotiations between the two chambers were going down to the wire?
When a seasoned lawmaker, former Senate Finance Committee Chair Jack Donahue, made the modest suggestion that he’d like to understand the amendments he was voting on?
When, with just minutes to go, mass confusion broke out over whether lawmakers were about to approve the one-penny sales tax increase they’d settled upon or the even higher figure that was somehow listed on the bill’s official summary?
Did reality set it once it became clear that lawmakers had passed more than $800 million in new taxes in the final two minutes before Wednesday’s 6 p.m. mandatory adjournment?
Or was it the moment when the self-possessed Master of the Senate, President John Alario, voiced open dismay at how the endgame had gone down?
Alario, who had hoped to make sense out of the chaos, showed signs of stress as the clock ticked down, at one point stopping a fellow senator in mid-thought to urge him to “give me something that means something.”
And when it was all over, Alario, who rarely complains in public, took to the podium to apologize to the state’s taxpayers and to criticize the gamesmanship he’d seen from the more ideologically-driven House as the Legislature struggled to plug a historic budget hole.
“We’re going to have some serious conversations with the other body over how the people’s business is supposed to be conducted,” he said. Alario, a 45-year veteran of the Legislature, would later call it the worst session closing he’d ever seen and pronounce some of the behavior “disgusting.”
Alario’s comments preceded a sober-toned news conference from Gov. John Bel Edwards, who largely concurred that the House in particular had not risen to the occasion.
In hindsight, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the new administration largely did.
It’s certainly possible to disagree with the new Democratic governor’s choices on how he tried to address the emergency shortfall for the remainder of this fiscal year and next, although he was right that it would have been nearly impossible to pursue thoughtful, large-scale structural reform in such a tight time frame.
Edwards made some tactical mistakes, too. His ill-advised aside over the possible loss of college football during his pre-session address proved a needless distraction, and some of his tough talk aimed at the House Republicans may have encouraged them to dig in. Edwards and his straight-shooting Republican commissioner of administration, ex-Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, are still learning on the job under circumstances that are far from ideal.
But the two also are former lawmakers who understand the budget’s complexities, and their sober-minded attitude was reassuring.
More so was their realism. Neither sugar-coated the difficult options before them or the implications of possible cuts on real people and state systems, particularly higher education and health care, that already are making do with much less.
Contrast that with some of the actions out of the House, such as a brief attempt to almost fully defund the Department of Education without any understanding of the implications of such a drastic cut.
Add to that state Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate John Kennedy’s simplistic suggestions that easy cuts were there for the taking; Kennedy’s rhetoric, some of his fellow Republicans said, actually made life harder for those looking for ways to pursue real reform.
And contrast all this with former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s general stance, particularly as the budget hole grew deeper during his second term.
If he were still in charge, Jindal probably would have reached the end of such a session, declared it a rousing success, glossed over the human and fiscal costs of what lawmakers passed and hopped back on the presidential campaign trail.
A downbeat Edwards, meanwhile, admitted it was far from Louisiana’s proudest day. Honesty like that, at least, is a start.