Wrangling over how to resolve the budget crisis in state government took all the air out of the 2015 Legislature, pushing virtually every other bill into the background.
“I have been here since 1992, and I cannot recall where we have had an issue dominate the session as this budget issue has this session,” said Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge.
“Our other issues seemed to take second tier, if you will, in the process,” Broome said Thursday shortly before the 6 p.m. adjournment.
“You didn’t hear a whole lot about anything but the budget,” she said, a comment heard often around the State Capitol.
Lawmakers gathered on April 13 facing a $1.6 billion shortfall to keep state spending at current levels, and everyone agreed that would be the key topic. However, bitter and time-consuming debates over how to address the problem all but drowned other topics expected to draw attention.
That list includes Common Core, highway improvements, payroll deduction for public union dues, what backers called religious rights and abortion.
In addition, dozens of other bills on lesser-known topics got little attention, casualties of the increasingly frantic push to craft a complex budget deal that could be embraced by the Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal. That happened on Thursday.
State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, sponsor of the key bill on the Common Core accord, said budget issues forced lawmakers to make quick work of what was expected to be a lengthy, heated education debate.
A three-bill agreement was announced in early May, well before adjournment, and all three breezed through the Legislature.
“I think the leadership and many in the body wanted Common Core out of the way,” Geymann said Thursday.
“They didn’t want us to be dealing with both of those issues and having it cross over,” he said.
The worry, legislators said, was that anger over Common Core would cause lawmakers to oppose Louisiana’s $24 billion operating budget or the revenue-raising measures needed to address the shortfall.
Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said the financial crisis caused him to not file any major bills. “The budget no doubt was the dominant issue this year,” White said.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, made the same point.
“I think this session the budget issue, the structural problems with the budget, forced every legislator to keep that in mind in every decision that was made, whether that be on the budget or other issues,” Richard said.
“They are all intertwined,” he added.
House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, said grappling with tax hikes and other issues on the shortfall crippled her already uphill efforts to boost state aid for roads and bridges.
St. Germain’s bills to boost the state sales tax by 1 cent — $7.5 billion over 10 years — and Louisiana’s gasoline tax by 10 cents — $300 million per year — died in the House with little fanfare.
She said she has never seen a budget dominate like this year.
“And I have been around 26 years,” said St. Germain, who is serving her final year in the Legislature.
A bill to ban the automatic payroll deduction of teacher and other public union membership dues sparked controversy early, won approval from the House Labor Committee and was never heard again.
“We were focused on the deficit,” state Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette and sponsor of the bill, said moments after adjournment. “We could not give the proper attention to payroll deduction.”
A House-passed bill to ban abortions on the basis of gender stalled in a Senate committee.
It was a victim of concerns on whether the measure was needed as well as efforts to avoid any late-session, time-consuming blowups on social issues.
A bill to carve out protections for people who oppose same-sex marriage — House Bill 707 — failed in a House committee in part over worries that it would spark election-year arguments in a two-month session where financial issues drove the agenda.
State government’s financial troubles caused problems on multiple fronts, leaving little time for other issues.
The House and Senate had major disagreements for weeks on what combination of tax hikes and credits would solve the $1.6 billion shortfall.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said this year’s debate may cause state leaders to rethink the rules for fiscal sessions so the focus is strictly on finances.
“What they discovered is they didn’t have time to deal with other issues, and they shouldn’t have pursued them in the beginning,” Monaghan said.
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