The Louisiana Legislature, fresh off a week-long break after the collapse of its recent special session, is heading back to the State Capitol on Monday for a three-month regular session.
But frayed tensions and mounting distrust could ultimately be issues at the forefront of the session that will cover a variety of topics – from education issues to sexual harassment policies to criminal justice.
The 2018 regular session begins at noon Monday. At about 1 p.m., Gov. John Bel Edwards is slated to give his assessment of where the state stands half-way through his first term and what priorities he expects the Legislature to address.
State law bars lawmakers from taking up tax legislation in regular sessions in even-numbered years, so lawmakers won't have the option to continue looking for revenue sources to bridge a looming budget gap the state faces when temporary tax measures expire June 30.
Edwards, a Democrat, and Republican legislative leaders have floated the idea of ending the session, scheduled to end on June 4, early to allow lawmakers an opportunity to convene in a special session to take up taxes. It's unclear whether that will happen and some lawmakers say the prospect remains dubious, at best.
Regular sessions in even-numbered years are often dominated by issues that can verge on odd to the general public. Of the more than 1,000 bills pre-filed as of Friday afternoon, there were proposals that would allow people to shoot bears in self defense, allow schoolchildren to carry bullet-proof backpacks and allow merchants to establish anti-theft programs that would go around reporting thieves to the authorities.
Among some of the perennial issues at the Capitol that have previously been met with resistance, there are bills that seek to mandate equal pay for men and women, overhaul the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships and set a state minimum wage rate higher than the federal governments.
Lawmakers are also slated to take up proposals that didn't make it through the special session that ran from Feb. 19 through March 5 with little outcome. Bills have been filed to create a new state budget transparency website, require most able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work or perform other qualified forms of community service to receive their benefits and impose a new cap on government spending. Each of those passed the House in the special session but didn't make it into law as negotiations over revenue-raising measures imploded.
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Lawmakers are expected to address education issues and gambling, as well. And the topic of sexual harassment also is expected to come to the forefront after two high-profile harassment in state government claims emerged in recent weeks, sparking multiple reviews of state policies and recommendations for legislative changes.
Because of the short timeline between the revenue-focused special session and the start of the normal session, neither the House Republicans nor Democrats had identified a bill priority schedule as of Friday. Bills were being prefiled during the special session, as tense negotiations were underway over the fiscal cliff.
Edwards also has been slowly rolling out a legislative agenda for the session, rather than a big reveal, as most of his large pre-session public speaking engagements fell before or during the special session and focused largely on issues that were to be addressed then.
Rep. Gene Reynolds, a Minden Democrat who had served as the House Democratic Caucus chair until his resignation after Monday's end of the special session, described the atmosphere in the House as "toxic."
"The first thing we've got to do is get over that and get back to a normal routine and atmosphere where people respect one another," he said.
Even though it's not a fiscal session, many have predicted that the budget will dominate discussion and the mood in the building.
"I think we're going to hit the ground running and get a lot of work done early on in the session," Rep. Lance Harris, an Alexandria Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus. "That's the plan that is the talking to other members."
The House Appropriations Committee has scheduled its first hearing on state spending for Tuesday – the second day of the session.
"The anti-revenue people, now they've got to find the cuts," Reynolds said. "It's going to be interesting to see how they do that – if they can, then more power to them. You've just got to show me where those cuts can be made without hurting people."
The Revenue Estimating Conference is scheduled to meet again this month in the early days of the session. Most lawmakers expect a rosier projection than the most recent one because the state's coffers will get a boost from a change in federal taxes and could possibly be lifted by a change in oil prices or the state's other economic indicators. The shortfall is unofficially estimated to be around $600 million to $700 million.
The uncertainty over the official figure is what left some conservative members of the Legislature particularly squeamish towards revenue-raising measures in the special session.
Edwards has said that he doesn't believe the Legislature will pass a final budget before the regular session ends and will need a special session before the July 1 start of the fiscal year to finalize a spending plan.
Several House Republican leaders have said that they prefer that the state try to shore up the budget first through cutting spending.
After four special sessions and two regular sessions, no significant permanent budget cuts have been identified.
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"We have to do our duty and be diligent about appropriating," said Harris, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "I'm going to work very hard on a budget – producing one and getting one passed if possible."
Harris isn't committed to the idea of yet another special session, which would be the Legislature's sixth since February 2016 – all addressing the state's budget.
"It's too early for me to speak to that because I don't have all the facts yet," he said. "We don't know what we're dealing with."
Even the process of how the Legislature conducts its financial duties could come under review this session.
Rep. Julie Stokes, a Kenner Republican, has authored legislation that she says could mean the end to the constant cycle of special sessions.
Stokes' bill would let voters decide whether the Legislature should be open to taking up any legislation it wants each year – rather than the current every-other-year cycle.
"I just think because we can't talk about everything every time we meet, we cost the tax payers multiple millions of dollars, and it's really not necessary," Stokes said.
She said she hasn't yet gauged how her colleagues feel about the bill. "We've wasted so much time in so many special sessions," she said.
Special sessions cost the state about $60,000 a day, according to legislative estimates.
"I think at this particular time in our state's history, it doesn't seem to be working out very well," she said.
Stokes said she doesn't know how productive the regular session will be this year as the prospect of another special session looms.
Lawmakers in 2016 also had special sessions that bookended a regular session in which they could not take up tax measures. Stokes said she felt that sandwiched regular session was "the least motivated time" that she has seen from the Legislature since taking office in 2013.
"I'll be concentrating on trying to build bridges between people, instead of walls," she said. "It's just so walled up right now. The most important thing we can do is come together."
While the House struggled to pass any legislation, the Senate was relinquished to waiting in the wings.
State Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat and former member of the House, said that the tension in the lower chamber hasn't spilled over to the Senate but it has been noticed.
"We certainly have observed it," she said. "There are a lot of bridges that need to be mended. There is a lack of trust. We watched it."
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Barrow said she's concerned that as members grow more weary of debating the same issues session-after-session that frustrations will continue to mount.
"I hope it doesn't transfer over to the regular session," she said.
Barrow is the author of two of the three bills that Edwards placed on his legislative agenda to address sexual harassment.
One of Edwards' top aides resigned in November amid an investigation into sexual harassment and recently Secretary of State Tom Schedler has been embroiled in a lawsuit over claims that he harassed an employee.
“While sexual harassment and discrimination have long been an obstructing force in the workplace, during this reckoning of how we address such an important issue, we must make clear that the state is committed to creating a working environment free from sexual harassment and discrimination for everyone,” Edwards said in a statement Friday.
One of Barrow's bills would require mandatory anti-harassment training of every state employee and elected official. The state currently has a non-enforceable policy of required training.
"There was no level of continuity in terms of the administering of the training," Barrow said. "That's something we need to deal with right away."
The other seeks to prevent some information about sexual harassment investigations from becoming public record.
The bill in its current form could ultimately protect those accused from having information disclosed, though Barrow said that's not the intent and that it will be amended to protect access to public records.
"My intent is not to preclude valuable information from being disclosed – it's for things that can negatively impede an investigation," she said. "There may be some things that come up that I've not thought about."
"It's just trying to ensure that every investigation is vetted to the fullest with nothing to interfere with the outcome of the investigation," she added.