A lot of the television and social media coverage last week centered on state Rep. Malinda White being hustled into a side room after losing her temper at a colleague in the center aisle of the Louisiana House chamber. Not as much publicity surrounded the near-fisticuffs between Rep. Stuart Bishop and Rep. Robby Carter a few days before.
And then there was the weeks-long show over Rep. Ray Garofalo’s slip that he thought students should study the “good” of slavery, which he immediately retracted as a slip of the tongue, then followed up with a belligerent apology. For a month, Democratic legislators and some Republicans threatened to refuse legislation that needed a two-thirds majority until Garofalo was stripped of his chairmanship over the House Education Committee.
So, a reasonable case could be made that the 2021 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature was downright pugilistic.
A better image would be passionate but practical.
As the final gavel fell Thursday night, ending a legislative session that began April 12, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, thanked senators for the bipartisan spirit they used to pass bills.
“I will tell you there’s a lot of good legislation,” Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said.
Almost by any measure, the 2021 session accomplished a lot, particularly in comparison with the results of previous sessions.
Lawmakers approved an avenue to revamp the state’s tax structure and lower income tax rates; the first major investment of state money for roads and bridges in nearly 40 years; decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana that will keep thousands out of jail; standardizing conflicting parole rules passed at different times that kept hundreds in prison while others convicted of the same crime could get out; establishing mandatory kindergarten; increasing pay for teachers, professors and staffers; and moving decisively towards elections with paper ballots.
Louisiana Legislature wouldn’t apply the nonunanimous jury verdict law to those in prison who were sent there without all jurors voting to convict. But the House did approve a task force sought by Democrats to study the issue.
“We may not find any wrongs in this task force, but we have to look,” said Rep. Chuck Owen, a self-described ultra-conservative Republican from Rosepine. “The thought of someone being imprisoned who doesn’t belong there troubles me.”
The business community and organized labor came together in the final minutes of the session to boost the nation’s second-lowest weekly unemployment benefit for the first time in memory.
They agreed that Louisiana would withdraw from the temporary $300 unemployment add-on from the federal government on July 31 — about a month earlier than the program’s scheduled Sept. 6 stop date — in return for a permanent $28 bump that brings the weekly payment to those laid off and looking for work to $275 weekly. That is what Alabama and Florida give.
It seems like a good trade, Edwards said.
A few years ago, legislative lion John Alario, then Senate president, had to wipe away tears as he left the chamber, having witnessed a scrum of legislators bickering over an increase in sales taxes to balance the budget during the last 90 seconds before adjournment.
The difference this time?
“Money,” Rep. Randal Gaines said flatly.
Gaines had entered nearly every session since being elected in 2011 knowing that he and his colleagues would be asked to balance budgets that were often more than $1 billion short of revenues.
During the Jindal years that meant doing so without raising taxes or cutting services. It meant using one-time money to pay recurring bills, razzle-dazzle accounting, plus gutting the budgets of higher education and healthcare for low-income families. With Edwards' ascension in 2016, legislators were asked to increase taxes and cut popular services, but appropriate more to colleges and universities.
Lawmakers entered 2021 as the state’s economy reeled from pandemic-caused closures, prompting a lot of initial handwringing about a return to the old times of hard choices.
That didn’t happen.
The budgetary discipline imposed by Edwards produced more than enough revenues to pay the bills and a spending spree as COVID-19 restrictions eased boosted sales tax revenues, creating a surplus. Then billions of pandemic relief came in from the federal government to help refill a lot of empty pots.
“It’s just like in your family, when you have enough money, there’s a relief and you can focus on the stuff you’ve been putting off,” Gaines said.