The Louisiana Legislature kicked off its regular legislative session on Monday like it frequently does: Jovial lawmakers welcomed each other back to the State Capitol. They heard an optimistic speech from Gov. John Bel Edwards urging unity. They had mostly cleared the building by 4 p.m.
The clock is ticking on the Legislature to reach an agreement on the state spending plan for the budget that begins July 1. That includes calls from some, chiefly Edwards, who say that the state has significant structural flaws in its revenue that require immediate action on taxes. Others, led by a particularly vocal contingency of House Republicans, say that the state, which finds itself in a recession, instead has a duty to cut spending.
Much of Edwards' speech was spent making yet another pitch for the governor's economic package, which calls for changing the state's tax brackets and implementing a new commercial activities tax on some businesses.
His session-opening address before the House and Senate also served as a rebuke of what he characterized as partisan politics that has mired Washington, D.C. in gridlock that he said could similarly paralyze the state.
"I refuse to allow governing the state of Louisiana to look anything like what’s going on in Washington. It’s not working for them, and it will not work for us," Edwards said from the House floor. "There is too much at stake for us to let partisanship get in the way and none of us should tolerate it."
Edwards also used his second annual State of the State speech to call on the Legislature to prioritize an overhaul of the state's criminal justice system, tackling the highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate; adopt the state's first-ever mandated minimum wage; grow the state's investment in transportation spending, which ranks last in the country; and prioritize coastal planning, among other initiatives.
With that weighty list of firsts and worsts before them, lawmakers must wrap up the session by 6 p.m. June 8.
Edwards has called three special sessions since taking office, urging lawmakers to address the state's budget, which has faced 15 mid-year deficits in the past nine years. Last year, the Legislature agreed to a temporary increase in the state sales tax, which was meant as a temporary infusion of money that will end in 2018.
But lawmakers didn't appear to be sweating the first day back in session.
"If those ideas aren’t acceptable, we’ll come up with our own," Sen. Brett Allain, R-Franklin, said of the governor's speech.
Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Republican from Slidell who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, said that the state spending plan, which is formally filed as House Bill 1 each year, will include several ideas from the GOP's perspective of the budget.
"We have our own ideas," she said. "We’ll see a reduction in the budget."
House Republicans, in particular, have said they prefer the state make more cuts, rather than looking for ways to bring in more revenue.
Gov. John Bel Edwards State of the State: April 10, 2017 (as prepared for delivery).
"Criticism is only as valuable as the input and action that follows it, but we have seen very little constructive input and no constructive action. That’s just not helpful," Edwards said in his speech. "We cannot continue down the path we are currently on. It’s unsustainable for our state. And we can’t keep moving the goal post because it’s politically advantageous."
He further accused lawmakers of "only telling half the story" by not addressing the impact of cuts and relying on "political sound bites."
"We cannot deliver critical state services on political sounds bites," he said. "I believe that the people of Louisiana who put us here in the first place, expect more of us than business as usual. They expect us to be as strong, hardworking, innovative and courageous as they are – even in the face of great challenges"
Rep. Lance Harris, the Alexandria Republican who chairs the House GOP caucus, said he wasn't surprised by much from the governor's budget but he disagrees with him on key points.
"Every time we disagree, you can't just come out and say 'It's Washington-style politics,'" Harris said to the governor's characterization of the potential for partisanship to drive discord. "No one is going to agree with the governor 100 percent of the time. No one is going to agree with me 100 percent of the time, or anyone else."
Harris said he hasn't reviewed every aspect of the governor's proposed plan and couldn't speak to it as a whole. He said he thinks that there could be room for the state to curb the amount of money its doesn't bring in because of tax credits and rebates, which he views as government spending in some cases.
Republicans, he said, are crafting their own plan through the legislative process, particularly hearings on taxes and spending.
"The best way thing to do is debate everyone's philosophy and where there is compromise, you compromise," Harris said. "I think that's the goal that everyone has."
Harris said he would prefer to focus on keeping spending level in the budget that begins July 1 and waiting to get a clearer picture on where the state's revenues stand. "There's been no major cuts. There's been no major catastrophes. Why can't the state of Louisiana spend the money next year that we did in the year we are in now?"
Advocate writer Tyler Bridges contributed to this report.
Louisiana's finances again will be front and center as lawmakers returned to Baton Rouge on …