HB2 debate

Louisiana House Ways & Means Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, explains Wednesday, May 24, 2017, the legislation that funds the state's construction projects.

Democrats in the state House blocked a must-pass spending bill Wednesday in an attempt to force the Republican majority to negotiate with them on the budget and taxes.

The Democrats’ move escalates a fight that has been building steadily in recent weeks over their complaints that Republicans approved a budget that would mandate deep cuts in health care spending for the poor and disabled and have refused to pass any major revenue-raising measures to address a looming budget deficit.

Republicans say their constituents want them to say no to more spending and taxes while Democrats say that the state needs to invest more in K-12 schools, colleges and universities and new roads and bridges – and fix the upcoming deficit. Republicans have carried the day so far in the House.

Democrats on Wednesday utilized one of their few leverage points by temporarily derailing House Bill 3, which authorizes the Louisiana Bond Commission to sell bonds for state construction projects. It normally passes routinely every year.

HB3 needed a super-majority of at least 70 votes in the 105-member House. It received 56 votes, with only one Democrat voting yes.

Democrats and Republicans alike dearly favor spending as much as possible to fix roads, local courthouses and sewer systems and to upgrade museums, golf courses and hospitals. Bringing projects home is typically a key selling point for lawmakers who seek re-election.

The Democrats’ action is risky since it threatens infrastructure projects underway in their districts’ as well as Republicans’.

“I’m glad I voted yes to pay the people we owe money to,” state Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, said in an interview, indicating a possible line of Republican attack.

State Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden, who heads the Democratic caucus, freely acknowledged in an interview that he and his colleagues voted no to try to use HB3 as a bargaining chip.

“They talk at us,” Reynolds said of the Republican majority. “They don’t talk with us. The only time they need us is when they need to have 70 votes. We just want them to negotiate with us a little bit. We’re ready to negotiate right now.”

State Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria heads the Republican caucus.

Speaking to several reporters, Harris called the Democrats’ move “Washington-style politics at its best” and added that they were “holding the state of Louisiana hostage.” Harris noted that the Legislature will adjourn in two weeks on June 8. Asked whether the Democrats’ move would cause a major problem, he replied, “It’s too early to tell.”

Over Democrats’ objections, Republicans passed the House’s version of the budget by authorizing the state to spend only 97.5 percent of the available funds as of July 1. Republicans said they want a built-in cushion to prevent yet another midyear cut in spending necessitated when spending unexpectedly outstrips tax revenue.

Democrats favor spending the full amount available, with Gov. John Bel Edwards wanting an additional $440 million in spending on roads, higher education, prisons and pay raises for state workers.

The Senate Finance Committee is now working on its version of the budget, with the panel expected to approve it on Monday with more spending than the House sought. The budget would then go before the full Senate.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee, dominated by conservatives, has killed each of Edwards’ proposals aimed at raising enough money to offset $1.3 billion in temporary taxes due to expire in mid-2018. The governor has complained repeatedly that Republicans in the House have yet to offer their own plan to replace the vanishing money, known inside the state Capitol as the “fiscal cliff.”

Failure by the Legislature to settle on a solution to the fiscal cliff by June 8 will force a special session sometime within the next 12 months. Edwards has said the choices then will be no better than they are today.

The shortage of available state money was on full display Wednesday during the debate on House Bill 2, which preceded HB3. The two are companion measures with HB2 listing which state construction projects get funding.

State Rep. Neil Abramson of New Orleans, the Democrat who chairs Ways and Means, noted he and the governor’s office have “right-sized” the construction budget by trimming numerous projects for which funding doesn’t exist.

That didn’t stop state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, from attempting to redirect $98 million to finish construction of the Comite River Diversion Canal across East Baton Rouge Parish. She said it would prevent future flooding. Several other legislators objected, saying her move would eliminate money that would help flood victims in their districts. The House killed Hodges’ effort, 32-66.

State Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, followed by trying to redirect millions for the Children’s Hospital under construction by Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center just off Interstate10 in Baton Rouge. She faced a torrent of complaints that she would take away money for construction projects that would benefit others. The House killed Davis’ effort as well, 29-67.

State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, then tried to kill all the new construction projects in HB2, saying, “I believe the Legislature has to have some discipline when we’re in the financial crisis we’re in.”

Schroder provoked state Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill, a Democrat and grandmotherly former teacher from Dry Creek in Allen Parish who rarely raises her voice. Visibly angry, she said her poor, rural district hasn’t gotten any new spending projects for years. Hill accused Schroder of trying to cut a $150,000 project in line for the town of Oberlin to fix its water system.

“I think I’d have to call you a bad name,” Hill told Schroder from her desk, 15 feet away from where Schroder was standing at the podium. “I don’t say bad things … I’ve been praying I wouldn’t say the wrong thing.” (She didn’t.)

Schroder, after saying he sympathized with Hill but said his goal was cutting spending, announced several minutes later that he would withdraw his bill for technical reasons.

The legislation required 70 votes to pass, but came up 14 votes short.

Voting for HB3 (56): Speaker Barras, and Reps. Abraham, Abramson, Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Berthelot, Bishop, Broadwater, S. Carter, Chaney, Coussan, Crews, Cromer, Davis, DeVillier, Dwight, Edmonds, Emerson, Falconer, Guinn, L. Harris, Havard, Hazel, Henry, Hilferty, Hodges, Hoffmann, Hollis, Horton, Howard, Huval, N. Landry, Leopold, Mack, Magee, McFarland, Miguez, G. Miller, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Pearson, Pope, Pugh, Pylant, Richard, Schexnayder, Seabaugh, Shadoin, Simon, Stagni, Stefanski, Stokes, Talbot, Thomas and Zeringue.

Voting against HB3 (40): Reps. Anders, Armes, Bagneris, Billiot, Bouie, T. Brown, R. Carter, Cox, Danahay, Franklin, Gaines, Gisclair, Glover, Hall, J. Harris, Hill, Hunter, Ivey, Jackson, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, Johnson, Jones, Jordan, LeBas, Leger, Lyons, Marcelle, Marino, D. Miller, Moreno, Norton, Pierre, Price, Reynolds, Schroder, Smith, Thibaut andWhite.

Not Voting (9): Reps. C. Brown, Carmody, Carpenter, G. Carter, Connick, Foil, Garofalo, Hensgens and T. Landry.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.