Louisiana House and Senate accountants were collecting the invoices Tuesday for a special session that ended early, failed to accomplish its goals and could cost taxpayers upward of $1 million.
Lawmakers had gathered for an extraordinary meeting specifically to find ways to raise enough revenues to plug an estimated $994 million hole in next year’s state budget. After two weeks of often bitter debate, they couldn’t agree and quit on Monday — two days before the scheduled end.
“Well, folks. There you have it. 15 days and 60K per day — that's nearly 1 MILLION in taxpayer dollars down the drain — with very little accomplished. In a business, that kind of ‘return on investment’ would lead to some major staff changes,” Republican Rep. Julie Stokes, of Kenner, tweeted minutes after the Legislature adjourned.
This was the fifth special session since January 2016 called to deal with the problem of a fiscal and tax structure that doesn’t raise enough money to cover the cost of government services. Looked at from that perspective, taxpayers have shelled out $5 million or so for legislators to convene outside the regular schedule, yet lawmakers still haven’t come up with a solution, said Stokes, a certified public accountant.
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“You’re dealing with objective numbers on a piece of paper,” Stokes said Tuesday in an interview about the state’s unsolved financial problems. “This is a well-defined problem that should be dealt with pragmatically. And we haven’t.”
“It wound up being a colossal waste of taxpayer money,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said on a Facebook post.
House Clerk Butch Speer said legislators are working through sharp philosophical differences about the role of government. By design and law, legislatures are the closest to the people — each of the 105 House members represent about 43,000 people — and sessions are designed for lawmakers to debate these kind of difficult issues.
“Legislatures are supposed to be debating societies. They’re not supposed to be factories,” Speer said. “Widgets don’t come out the other end where we can calculate whether there was value. … I’m put off by the premise that this is money wasted.”
When the regular legislative session ended last year, lawmakers adjourned without mustering the political will to pass a budget, the one task …
A special session is a meeting of the Legislature that occurs outside of the regular annual legislative session. The constitution prohibits lawmakers from taking up most tax and fiscal measures during regular sessions in even-numbered years.
Expenses for the session that started Feb. 19 and ended Monday won’t be calculated for several weeks. But the rough estimate to run a special session is about $60,000 per day, meaning the total costs will be about $900,000.
The largest expense is the $164 a day per diem paid to representatives and senators regardless of whether they are actually in the State Capitol. They will be paid for 15 days of work.
The Senate officially convened for about 19 hours over nine days, making their pay equivalent to roughly $129 an hour. But tax bills must begin in the House, so a lot of the Senate down time was waiting for the lower chamber to pass something. Only two minor bills were approved and neither dealt with the fiscal problems.
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The House logged about 29 hours (about $85 per hour) over 11 days officially meeting in the chamber, though the first day was to hear the governor’s speech and the next day was taken up with committee hearings.
Many more hours were spent behind closed doors in negotiations, though most members milled around the State Capitol waiting to hear what the talks yielded.
Legislators also get mileage of 54.5 cents per mile for one round trip from their homes to the State Capitol each week. Then, there’s the cost of printing the bills, amendments and daily journals, as well as supplies, soft drinks and coffee.
Usually state employees working on special sessions are paid overtime. But many on the Legislature’s staff already were working overtime to prepare for the regular session that starts March 12, said Brenda Hodge, spokeswoman for the state Senate.
Also, some money was saved by not temporarily hiring the usual complement of security, sergeant at arms, proofreaders and clerical workers brought to help the Legislature in session, she said, adding that the total expenses may come in less than expected.