Four to five inches of water from Thursday’s heavy rainstorm started coming into her home as Baton Rouge state Sen. Yvonne Colomb prepared for her last day in legislative session. But she needed to be at the State Capitol because her last bill, which she called the most important in her 26 years in public life, was on life support.
In the last week of what had been a comparatively tame general session of the Louisiana Legislature, Colomb’s measure to ban children younger than 16 from legally marrying ran into a buzz saw of opposition. A successful effort to strip the minimum age from legislation specifically designed to create one — Louisiana is one of the few states that allow teens of any age to wed, including partners old enough to be charged with statutory rape but for the marriage license — had been reported from Great Britain to Saudi Arabia.
Although the rain caused both chambers to start late, that didn't stop legislators from leaving early for a long lunch then spending the afternoon taking selfies, giving personal speeches and occasionally approving legislation. But it had been that way pretty much the entire two months of the Legislature's meeting in contrast with the late nights and bitter recriminations of most of the previous 10 sessions, only four of which were regularly scheduled.
Minor agreements still needed to be worked out on that last day. The House and Senate differed on how to spend about $10 million out of a $30 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But only child marriage and legalizing sports betting provided drama in the final moments of the becalmed session.
Clancy DuBos' annual post-session assessment of the legislative carnage lists the victors and the vanquished.
By and large, said House Majority Leader Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, legislators this session had the time to debate and consider many more issues of the day, which is, after all, the purpose of the Legislature.
“For the first time in nearly a decade, the Legislature was able to have a debate about new investments in education — from public schools to early childhood and infrastructure — instead of fighting over which programs to cut,” Jan Moller, executive director of Louisiana Budget Project, said in a statement. His group studies policies from a low- and moderate-income point of view.
That’s the result of the June 2018 compromise that provided enough sales taxes to stabilize revenues for six years, easing tensions brought on by trying to balance a budget that couldn't raise enough money to pay the bills year after year.
With financing out of the way, lawmakers turned to other issues. And for the first time in a long time, the gun lobby and the business community didn’t get everything they wanted.
Legislators rejected bills to expand Louisiana’s "stand your ground" law in churches; to allow local governments to prohibit guns in certain businesses and public buildings; and to force local banks and other financial institutions to do business with the firearms industry.
The business community also had a rough time with repeated defeats of an omnibus bill to change liability and trial rules for litigation stemming out of injuries in car wrecks, which was promoted to reduce the state’s high auto insurance premiums. The lawyers who represent the injured countered that the bill would help insurance companies at the expense of the injured.
“That was a very troubling loss,” said Stephen Waguespack, head of the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. He added that the cost and availability of insurance is the No. 1 issue people speak to him about in his travels around the state. He predicted the issue would be raised during the upcoming gubernatorial and legislative elections.
Similarly, several bills and resolutions aimed at limiting local say-so on which industries the state would forgive local property taxes were defeated.
But, state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, was able to get passed a Senate-only resolution asking Louisiana Economic Development to study the Industrial Tax Exemption Program. Waguespack said that’s an opportunity for streamlining the procedures put in place by Gov. John Bel Edwards and perhaps, in the future, leaning toward have a single point of contact on the local level rather than industry having to vet their projects with school boards, sheriffs and other local taxing jurisdictions.
Waguespack said business got a major win in passing a bill that would allow refunds if the tax paid is found unconstitutional. The legislation clears up a problem that came about when the Louisiana Supreme Court tossed a law that denied refunds in some cases where the taxpayer also paid taxes in another state but wouldn’t allow the state to return the money — about $30 million annually for three years — by another state law.
Upcoming October elections also played a role in the session. All 144 legislative seats are up; most are running for reelection; plus 31 of the 105 representatives and 16 of the 39 senators must leave because of term limits, and many are wanting to be elected to other chamber.
For the most part, legislators avoided putting their colleagues on the spot.
Rep. Terry Landry, for instance, was concerned about the difficult vote on his bill abolishing the death penalty. The Senate already had rejected a similar measure along with legislation that would have jump-started executions by keeping secret the providers of the lethal injections drugs the state has run out of and can't find on the market anymore.
As Landry sat on the side of the House chamber before the debate with a nun, going over the religious foundations for morally opposing capital punishment, he explained to a reporter that his interest was to challenge his colleagues to reflect on their long-held positions.
Also sitting with him was Franklin Rep. Sam Jones, the Democratic minority's vote counter, who offered that he hadn’t – and wasn’t asked to – “tick” the nays and yeas.
After more than an hour of emotional debate, the Lafayette Democrat withdrew his legislation without a vote and took his seat.
After a day of hard negotiating, the Louisiana Legislature agreed Thursday to ban marriage for teens under the age 16.
Colomb left her husband ripping up baseboards Thursday morning and drove two miles to the State Capitol. She huddled in corners of the Senate's lobby and along the galleries meeting with opponents who felt that teens young enough to have sex and get pregnant should be able to get married. Colomb hammered out a deal that included a 16-year-old minimum age for marriage with strict standards before judges allow 16- and 17-year-old nuptials. Her bill was approved with less than 15 minutes to go and was sent to the governor’s desk.
Legalizing sports betting would go down — along with starting fantasy sports games — when state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, ran out the clock, leaving the legislation unpassed at 6 p.m.
Martiny's bill authorizing the state’s 20 casinos to take wagers on collegiate and professional sports had eked through the legislative process until it hit the House Appropriations Committee, which rejected the proposal.
People will not be allowed to begin playing fantasy sports in Louisiana.
When efforts to revive the sports-betting measure was blocked by parliamentary maneuvers in the House, the Senate attached the legalization language to two bills that would allow residents in most parishes to play fantasy sports games.
In fantasy sports games, players pay to put together rosters of real-life athletes and win prizes based on how well those athletes perform, was approved last year by voters in 47 of the state’s 64 parishes. But before the games can be played regulatory and tax mechanics needed to be installed and that’s what the two bills did. Because the legislature can only decide tax-related bills in odd-numbered years, the issue can’t come up again until 2021.
The House stripped the sports betting part from the bills and returned them to the Senate. In his last act on the Senate floor after a quarter century in the Louisiana Legislature, Martiny filibustered until 6 p.m., effectively keeping the Senate from voting on either sports betting or fantasy sports.
How the Legislature dealt with major issues
When lawmakers introduced a slate of abortion restrictions and regulations this session, it was par for the course for a Legislature that widely votes to restrict access to the procedure and a Democratic governor who ran on an anti-abortion platform four years ago.
With national media looking on, the Legislature easily passed a high-profile “fetal heartbeat” bill that would ban abortions at about six weeks, if upheld by the courts. Edwards, over objections from progressives and national Democrats, signed the measure into law.
Later in the session, lawmakers decided to ask voters to enshrine anti-abortion language in the state’s constitution. Before it passed, the author, Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, moved the election date from October, when her ally Edwards would be on the ballot against at least two Republicans, to the presidential election in 2020.
Still, it’s the regulations added to abortion clinics that will likely have the most impact on abortions in Louisiana.
A bill that requires women to get medically induced abortion drugs from abortion clinics rather than OB-GYNs passed easily. Clinics will also have far more stringent regulations on how long they hold onto patient records, and they will be required to furnish a detailed list of information to patients before performing an abortion.
Abortion providers and abortion rights advocates say the regulations aim to make it more difficult for clinics to operate. The state has three clinics left, one each in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.
The budget funds several priorities that have been cut in recent years as the state suffered through budget crises. A deal to raise a partial penny of state sales tax agreed to by lawmakers and Edwards last year shored up the budget, and lawmakers sent the money to a range of services and agencies.
People with developmental disabilities will see their programs funded higher than previously. Early childhood education could get $20 million in new money. Councils on aging and motor vehicle offices throughout the state will get a boost, along with a host of other areas.
House Republican leaders also successfully cut out about $700 million in “excess budget authority,” or money that agencies don’t expect to come in from the federal government and other sources. That was an effort to pare down the total budget figure to about $30 billion.
In the final minutes of the legislative session that ended Thursday, Louisiana lawmakers approved a $30 billion state budget deal that funded …
Roads and bridges
In one of the biggest surprises of the two-month session, the Legislature gave lopsided approval to a $690 million transportation measure. The plan includes cranes for the Port of New Orleans, a connector to relieve some of the traffic approaching the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge and for Interstate 49 in Lafayette.
The work will be paid for using settlement money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill.
The Legislature also gave swift, lopsided approval to a bill that will allow the state to use shoulders to add high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 12 between the I-10/12 split in Baton Rouge and Walker.
New Orleans infrastructure
New Orleans will receive tens of millions of dollars, mostly from taxes levied on visitors, to tackle the city’s road and drainage woes, as part of a compromise deal approved by the Legislature.
About $34 million of the $50 million in one-time money that the city will receive from the state will pay for bills owed by the Sewerage & Water Board. The other $16 million — as well as up to $26 million in recurring tax revenue from new taxes — will pay for the city’s ongoing anti-flooding needs.
An agreement to boost hotel taxes to provide more money for New Orleans’ infrastructure is officially a done deal.
The three bills that comprised the deal easily passed the House and the Senate, but only after Edwards brokered an agreement between the tourism industry and Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The deal resulted from weeks of negotiations that at times left bruised feelings on both sides.
Despite a nearly two-month stalemate, the key parts of the public schools package wound up exactly the way Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education proposed in March and April.
The $3.85 billion spending plan for the 2019-20 school year includes teacher pay raises of $1,000, boosts of $500 for support workers and a $39 million increase in state aid for public schools — just the second of its kind in the past decade.
“We kept our eye on the prize, the investment in our children through a teacher pay raise,” Edwards said shortly after lawmakers adjourned.
The pay raises and boost in state aid total $140 million per year.
The budget includes at least $15.2 million in new state dollars for early childhood, which will trim Louisiana’s waiting list of services for low-income families by 1,450 children of about 5,500 waiting. Early childhood services are set to get another $3.6 million if Harrah’s casino meets revenue thresholds.
Higher education received $47.2 million more in its $1.06 billion appropriation. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the popular college tuition-paying program, received $311 million, an increase of $15.2 million.
Uber and Lyft
After three years of trying, backers of Uber and Lyft ride-hailing services won final approval for a bill that will expand the rides statewide by spelling out uniform rules.
Critics have long complained that, under the current setup, local rules complicate efforts to use the services between parishes, and that Uber and Lyft barely exist in rural areas.
A year ago, state Senate President John Alario and his Senate colleagues killed a bill that would have extended Harrah’s operating license at its New Orleans casino for 30 years.
Afterward, Alario, R-Westwego, commissioned a private consultant’s report to determine how much Harrah’s ought to pay the state for the extension. He then signed on to another attempt to renew the license this year by House Speaker Taylor Barras that would pay the state $130 million more over the 30 years than the 2018 bill.
With the support of the Legislature’s two most powerful members, the Harrah’s legislation sailed through the House and then the Senate. In return for the license extension, Harrah’s will pay higher taxes to the state and is pledging to build a hotel as part of a $325 million investment upgrade.
Sam Karlin, Will Sentell and Tyler Bridges of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.