Louisiana’s Legislature kicks off its two-month meeting at noon Monday, reconvening to craft a budget, tackle tax changes and divvy up $3.2 billion in federal COVID-19 aid more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic forced lawmakers into recess.        

As always, crafting a spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 is at the top of the agenda for lawmakers. Gov. John Bel Edwards opened negotiations in February with a $36.6 billion spending proposal, a rosier than expected outlook thanks to massive amounts of relief from three rounds of federal aid to help cope with losses sparked by the pandemic. He's hoping to boost the pay of school teachers.

In the so-called "fiscal sessions," which occur in odd-number years, lawmakers can only file five bills unrelated to finances.

More than 900 bills and resolutions had been filed Sunday. They include a number of hot topics. Louisiana has joined a growing list of state assemblies considering limits on transgender rights, including one bill that would put restrictions on transgender athletes competing in girls’ or women’s sports, and to limit voting accessibility in the name of security. Measures to curb police tactics and restrict the governor's powers during an emergency also will be up for debate.

The ongoing scandal over LSU leadership's coverup of coed complaints of sexual misconduct has prompted a half-dozen bills that could significantly change the flagship university's administration and oversight.

"Tax reform will be one of the dominant issues," said Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central and a veteran of multiple tax-related debates.

State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, made the same point. "That is the most talked about issue and the one I expect we will be spending the most time on," he said.

Turning to ideas in bills that have tried and failed over the years, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, along with other GOP leaders, again are backing another effort to remove the breaks that lower or eliminate taxes owed by special interests in hopes of raising enough money to reduce the overall income tax rates. One of the possibilities is eliminating the state income tax deduction for federal taxes paid.

“Louisiana has a per capita state and local tax burden that is very competitive. But, because of the complexity of the current tax structure, we are ranked near the bottom by many tax policy organizations,” Cortez, Schexnayder and six other Republican legislative leaders said in a joint statement outlining the effort. "Businesses pay attention to these rankings.”

Edwards said he'd support a tax overhaul if the package remains “revenue neutral" — where the state treasury doesn’t lose the current level of revenues needed to pay for state services. “What I am not going to do as governor is create that structural deficit that I inherited again. We have worked too hard and made too much progress. I am not going backwards on that," he said.

Schexnayder also filed a bill aimed at setting up a centralized system to collect and distribute sales taxes to state and local jurisdictions – long sought by businesses, long opposed by local taxing authorities.

One of the key topics is whether any tax changes result in a net reduction for taxpayers, which some House Republicans favor, especially amid the windfall of federal aid.

Edwards has said the sum of the changes need to be revenue neutral, especially since Louisiana's 4.45 cents per dollar sales tax hike sparked by an earlier fiscal crisis is set to expire in 2025, and trim tax collections by about $500 million per year.

The $3.2 billion in federal stimulus aid – state officials have wide latitude on how to use it – could set off weeks of political arguments, and some of the money may be put aside until next year.

"How do we not blow this," said House Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma. "There is a lot of pressure with not screwing this up."

The governor said his top priority for the money is replenishing the unemployment trust fund, which has been decimated because of skyrocketing unemployment caused by the pandemic. Other possibilities are road and bridges, aid for Louisiana's hard-hit tourism industry and high-speed internet improvements, especially in rural areas.

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Instead of opening the session with a speech to a joint session of the Legislature, as is tradition, Edwards will close Monday with a "State of the State" address 6 p.m., at Southern University’s A.W. Mumford Stadium.

Doing so will allow state leaders to avoid a jammed scene in the state House of Representatives chamber amid the state's ongoing battle to reduce COVID-19 cases. But officials are relaxing many of the pandemic rules that dominated sessions in 2020, and kept most everyone except legislators and staff out of the State Capitol.

Lots but not all 144 House and Senate members have gotten one of the three vaccines available. "I would not be going to the Capitol or committee hearings otherwise," said Rep. Joe Marino, a Gretna lawmaker who has no political affiliation.

The public will be allowed in this time, entering through the two breezeway doors located on the east and west sides of the building under the front steps. Temperatures will be taken at both doors. Those with a fever of 100.4 degrees or above will be denied entrance. Masks will continue to be required until the governor's statewide mandate is lifted. Groups will be limited to 30 people. The observation deck of the State Capitol remains closed.

Seating in House and Senate committee rooms and both chambers will be spaced to promote social distancing, with overflow rooms available.

Edwards has framed his budget priorities around providing the investments necessary to bolster the state’s education infrastructure, including $40 million to increase school teacher pay by $400 a year and $200 annually for school support staff, as well as $80 million dollars for pay raises for university faculty.

The teacher pay raise plan has gotten a chilly reaction from educators, especially knowing that average pay is about $4,000 below the Southern regional average.

The governor has said he plans to increase his teacher pay raise proposal, and add dollars for early childhood education, if as expected the Revenue Estimating Conference next month boosts its forecast for how much lawmakers will have to spend.

Another key topic is exactly what sports betting will look like after nearly 2 out of 3 votes statewide approved its legalization in 2020.

The debate will center on whether bettors can place wagers on smart phones, laptops and other devices or limit the betting to inside casinos, like Mississippi.

Senate President Cortez, who will sponsor one of the bills that spells out the rules, said the consensus view is that permitting betting from smart phones and computers is the only way to generate meaningful revenue – perhaps $10 million per year or more.

Critics says doing so would prey on those with gambling problems.

Amid an ever-widening probe into sexual misconduct allegations at LSU, Edwards has also thrown his weight behind House Bill 409  from Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, which would add teeth to the requirements that employees of colleges and universities report misconduct and abuse allegations, creating a chain of accountability all the way to the board that oversees the school.

Another bill proposes amending the state’s Constitution to close the so-called “slavery exception clause” and make involuntary servitude illegal in all cases. Louisiana's Constitution currently bans the practice — except when used as punishment for those convicted of a crime.  

Other bills on the education front would make corporal punishment illegal, mandate kindergarten and make it harder to suspend students amid racial disparities between who gets tossed out of public schools.

Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press and Mark Ballard of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.