Pity the freshmen legislators.
Not only are some of Louisiana’s new state lawmakers simply trying to learn the steps of a how a bill becomes a law, but they’ve also walked into the largest financial troubles Louisiana has faced in nearly 30 years.
The newbies are being asked to raise a billion dollars or more in taxes on the people and businesses around the state in a special legislative session, votes that threaten backlash at home.
If they’re reticent, they’re told the poor, elderly and disabled will face life-threatening cuts to their public health care services, and college students may have trouble getting a degree or even finishing classes this semester on public college campuses without the tax hikes.
Talk about a rough initiation to the Louisiana Legislature. Those are tough decisions for even the most seasoned of lawmakers, and the rhetoric surrounding the troubles is thick and difficult to decipher.
The freshmen are getting an intensive education quickly in the special session entering its second week, called by Gov. John Bel Edwards to help rebalance this year’s budget and stabilize Louisiana’s long-term financial situation.
This year’s $25 billion budget has a gap ranging from $850 million to $950 million that must be closed before June 30. The Democratic governor and lawmakers have agreed to $60 million in cuts so far. Edwards is asking for another $100 million in reductions or more, $328 million in short-term patches and tax increases to fill the rest.
Next year’s budget hole is even worse, estimated to be $2 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Edwards wants lawmakers to consider tax hikes to help close that shortfall and stop deep cuts to health care services, social service programs, colleges and more.
The decisions are challenging, and the timeline to make them is short. The special session must end by March 9, and taxes can’t be considered in the regular legislative session that begins the following week.
The Senate has 11 new members, though several of them have moved up from the House and don’t have much of a learning curve. The House has 29 new members, only two of whom have previously served as lawmakers. House Speaker Taylor Barras put 15 of those new lawmakers on the two money committees where tax and budget bills begin.
More than one-third of the House Appropriations Committee members are freshmen, and nearly one-third of the members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which deals with taxes, are first-timers to the Legislature.
It’s not as though the budget troubles were unknown. Louisiana has lurched from budget problem to budget problem throughout former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s two terms. The financial woes have been talked about across the state and written about extensively. They were the focal point of the governor’s race last fall and in many of the legislative elections.
But understanding that the financial problems are deep isn’t the same as understanding the complexities of Louisiana’s budget and how it can be stabilized.
Just to dig into the details of how state agencies spend money, what restrictions exist on the various pools of financing and how the dollars can be moved is complicated. Sometimes it can be hard to even understand what department officials are even saying, in a bureaucracy laden with confusing, insider terms.
At one point during a budget hearing last week, Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Gray, said she and other lawmakers were suffering from what she called “UAO,” unfamiliar acronym overload.
While the subject matter is dense, the influx of new lawmakers also brings fresh sets of eyes to the problems.
In the House, where Republicans want to make deeper cuts than those sought by the governor, the new legislators have shown no hesitance to ask questions, propose alternate approaches and push for more specifics on agency spending decisions.
“I don’t think you’re going to see us being embarrassed or afraid,” said freshman Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, a member of the Appropriations Committee. “We’re going to press every day and learn along the way.”
Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter, @melindadeslatte.