Tension remains the hallmark of this regular session of the Louisiana Legislature.
At the start of the week, House members went from demonizing each other’s opinions on Facebook to angrily talking past one another on the chamber floor.
The week progressed with harsh rhetoric proceeding party-line votes on polarizing issues, like putting prisoners to work on construction projects.
The week ended with a racially charged argument between a black New Orleans Democrat unhappy with charter schools and a white Metairie Republican who had tired of hearing such criticism.
Monday morning, when legislators return to Baton Rouge, the skies will remain red, indicating more rough seas ahead. One marker is House Bill 2. The measure that details construction projects the state will financially back usually provides a course correction when legislative nerves are frayed. Avarice clears the haze of partisanship and focuses legislative minds on what tangible benefits they can take home to the people who vote for them.
Want credit for building a playground? How about going along with removing this or that tax exemption?
Since William C.C. Claiborne, Louisiana governors have dangled the promise of new bridges, improved highways, sewer systems, playgrounds, firehouses and all the other projects legislators want to corral the votes necessary to accomplish other governing priorities.
This year's version of the capital outlay bill is remarkably frugal. Gov. John Bel Edwards won’t be able to use access to goodies as a hammer.
The reason why is that the Republican majority in the House refuses to go along with raising enough money to pay the state’s expenses. That impacts the formula for capital outlay.
Lawmakers back in the 1990s limited the debt the state could incur on construction projects to 6 percent of available general fund monies. They took action because annual payments on the 20-year and 30-year bonds were costing about 15 percent of the state general fund.
And as he prepared to run for the Republican presidential nomination, Gov. Bobby Jindal went on a spending spree that left Edwards with about $935 million in capital outlay, down from $1.44 billion during his predecessor’s final year.
Edwards’ capital outlay plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1 contains no new projects but would use surpluses from last year and any excess revenues to pay down smaller ongoing construction rather than seek loans through selling bonds. About $575 million will be used to reauthorize projects already in the pipeline.
“With the fiscal cliff looming and the fact that the Legislature was unable to replace the expiring revenue, we find ourselves continuing to look for innovative, fiscally responsible ways to fund construction projects our state needs with limited dollars,” Edwards said Thursday.
He recommends putting $20 million toward repairs and maintenance that has been deferred over the years, such as at Fort Pike State Historic Site in New Orleans. Another couple of million would go to replace roofs, like the one on the French House on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. He wants to use about $20 million to fund highway projects.
Edwards said he hopes another special session will address the revenue shortfall and allow lawmakers to come back to “augment” the bill with additional construction projects.
“It’s definitely smaller,” said House Ways & Means Chairman Neil Abramson of the Fiscal Year 2019 state construction budget. “The question is if it fiscally and economically matches up with the available resources.”
The New Orleans Democrat’s name will be on HB2, and his committee will be the first to take up the bill. He’s giving committee members a couple of weeks to analyze the legislative proposal before diving in with hearings.
Other ominous signs are on the horizon, not the least of which are rumblings on the federal level that interest rates will continue to go up. That means any borrowing the state does will cost taxpayers more.
Then there’s the warning shot fired by the big New York credit rating agencies after the special session ended abruptly on March 5 without addressing the state’s fiscal problems. A downgrade in the state’s credit rating would increase interest rates, again at taxpayers’ expense.
On the political upside for Edwards, if his HB2 version is legislatively approved, a lot of state debt would be cleared and the governor would head into next year’s elections with a lot more ability to back legislators’ pet projects.