Partisan politics at the Louisiana Legislature has slammed the brakes on several pieces of legislation, with both the Republicans and the Democrats holding bills hostage to gain leverage.
On Thursday, six criminal justice revamp bills scheduled for a vote were postponed after House Republicans quietly threatened to spike the legislative package. It was a game of tit-for-tat. Less than 24 hours earlier, the House Democrats voted to block the state's construction budget in a move to increase their negotiating power over the state budget. Democrats are using their leverage to make demands involving the state budget, taxes and the composition of the House’s tax and budget committees.
"I'm disappointed that D.C. politics is preventing bipartisan bills from passing," said Rep. Tanner Magee, from Houma, after hearing his fellow Republicans planned to kill the criminal justice bills. "Hopefully, we can come together as a body and do our jobs." Magee's House Bill 249 would alleviate the financial burden for ex-convicts released from prison, in an effort to prevent them from re-offending.
The criminal justice reform package is bipartisan. But it is critically important to Louisiana Democrats who favor sentencing reform and more jail alternatives.
Of the six bills to be heard on Thursday, two of the measures are sponsored by New Orleans Democrats Reps. Walt Leger III and Helena Moreno. And three of the bills were sponsored by Republicans: Reps. Magee, Stephen Dwight, from Lake Charles, and Julie Emerson, from Carencro. Rep. Joe Marino, No Party-Gretna, also sponsored one of the bills scheduled for the Thursday vote.
In total, Gov. John Bel Edwards backed 10 bills that make up a package that aims to expand parole opportunities, reduce sentences and reduce recidivism. The full package is expected to reduce the inmate population by 10 percent and free up about $184 million that will be invested back into rehabilitation programs and victims' services.
Richard Carbo, deputy chief of staff for Edwards, said the move to block the criminal justice bills added to the governor's frustrations with House Republicans.
"It's evidence the House is totally dysfunctional. This is an initiative that has broad bipartisan support, we have only two weeks left in the session and their lack of action is surprising," he said. "To let those bills just sit there when they still need to go through the process on the Senate side is disheartening."
But the governor's office expressed no such condemnation with the House Democrats' earlier block on the state construction budget. In a separate interview, Edwards said the Democrats’ move Wednesday was not his idea, but he voiced support for it.
On Wednesday evening, House Democrats blocked House Bill 3, which funds the state's construction projects.
Democrats say they were forced to act Wednesday because Republicans have failed to include them in negotiations over the budget and taxes. HB3 gave the Democrats some negotiating power because it requires a super-majority of 70 votes in the 105-member House, meaning the 41-member Democratic caucus could block it. The only Democrat who supported HB3 was state Rep. Neil Abramson, of New Orleans, who as chair of the Ways and Means Committee sponsors the measure. He also is a member of the House leadership team.
On Thursday, Democrats said they want Republicans to provide more consideration for their tax and budget bills, to restore funding cuts for health care for the poor and disabled in state budget and approve tax bills that would begin to fill the $1.3 billion budget deficit that hits in mid-2018.
Democrats are also objecting to the breakdown of the Appropriations Committee, which has 18 Republicans, one conservative no-party member and six Democrats. Since about 40 percent of the House is Democratic, a similar composition would give Democrats nine or 10 members on the committee which plays a key role in determining what gets funded by the state.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and state Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria, who heads the Republican caucus, said they were too busy to be interviewed.
The House is now scheduled to take up all six criminal justice bills on Tuesday, the same day that Republicans and Democrats are supposed to sit down to try to settle their differences.
Leger, who is Speaker Pro Tem and a key backer of the criminal justice package, said he's confident they'll pass.
"(House Republicans) know those are bills that have held great importance to us, just as HB3 (the construction budget funding measure) was important to them," Leger said. "Everyone is invested in these bills and that's why they're going to pass. I guess they just felt a great desire to respond to what happened."
Of the bills to be presented on Thursday, Leger's House Bill 489 would have redirected savings from the prison reform measures to be reinvested in programs for public safety, rehabilitation efforts for prisoners and victims services. Magee, Moreno and Marino's house bills 249, 177 and 426 are measures that would have alleviated financial burdens for ex-convicts released from prison, in an effort to prevent them from re-offending. Dwight's House Bill 116 would have improved the system that notifies victims when offenders are scheduled for hearings or set for release. Emerson's House Bill 519 would have made it easier for ex-cons to receive occupational licenses, while retaining some exclusions for the State Board of Medical examiners, the board of nursing and law enforcement.
On the House floor, Magee called on his colleagues to put good policy before politics.
"This is the most important thing we'll do this session. It's more important than HB3, HB2, and HB1," he said, referring to the full legislative package. House Bill 1 is the state budget legislation. "We need to come together as a body, and let the wounds of what's been going on heal."
In an unlikely worst-case scenario, differences between the two parties will harden over the next two weeks and they will be unable to approve House Bill 1, which will finance the operations of state government next year, and House Bill 3, which authorizes the sale of bonds to finance construction projects.
In an interview, state Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, a bystander to the fight, called it “saber rattling,” adding, “I hope they can put that on the side and work for the common good.”
Democrats in the state House blocked a must-pass spending bill Wednesday in an attempt to fo…