It’s probably overstating things to call the just-completed legislative session a shoo-shoo. After all, some significant things did happen.
But compared to all that’s come before — basically three years of nonstop combat, mostly pitting Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and his allies versus a powerful group of conservative Republicans in the state House — this year’s annual legislative gathering at the state Capitol was relatively tame.
There were disagreements, of course, including over which group got to claim credit for a modest teacher pay raise that everyone knew would eventually pass. The winning proposal was Edwards’ version, backed by the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education and the state Senate, and after much posturing, ultimately the state House. So teachers will get an extra $1,000 a year, support workers $500, and school districts $39 million in increased per-pupil funding. It’s not much, but it’s something that the governor and lawmakers were unable to even consider during all that time they were talking about cuts rather than investments.
The reason for this new reality is a vote that lawmakers finally took in 2018 to temporarily raise state sales tax by 9/20 of a penny, which steered the state away from the fiscal cliff. That allowed lawmakers to spend more on various priorities on top of K-12 education, including early childhood and higher education. There’s even going to be a big, $700 million investment in infrastructure, using money from the BP oil spill settlement.
Some of the fights that did happen were basically fake. They included a bill pushed by state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, who heads the House GOP caucus, which would have rolled back the sales tax increases from just a year ago. House members gave it a thumbs-up, knowing full well the Senate wouldn’t go along and, if all else failed, the governor would veto it. It amounted to classic, and classically misleading, election-year posturing.
Elsewhere the tension was real.
Two veteran state senators facing term limits ended their long and productive careers in a huff. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, lashed out at fellow Democrat Eric LaFleur of Ville Platte for refusing to sign a conference committee agreement, thus killing Morrell’s effort to remove sales taxes from feminine products and diapers. And Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, ran out the clock on state Rep. Kirk Talbot’s effort to impose rules and taxes on fantasy gaming, which voters in 47 parishes approved last year, because lawmakers weren’t going to allow Martiny to add a last-minute amendment legalizing sports betting. Talbot, of River Ridge, said that lawmakers wound up looking like “fools.”
Lawmakers did a better job of resolving disagreements on a bill to outlaw child marriage in Louisiana. The House passed a version of the Senate bill that basically undermined the entire premise, but a conference committee on the last day worked out an agreement that left the original intent intact.
During his news conference, Edwards left reporters with a cliffhanger — whether he’d sign a bill pushed by Attorney General Jeff Landry to explore ways to use high-risk pools to cover people with preexisting conditions should the courts invalidate the Affordable Care Act. The backstory here is that Landry, a Republican, signed Louisiana on to an Obamacare challenge that’s moving through the courts right now without alerting the Democratic governor, who vehemently opposes it. Edwards made a point of noting that the bill wouldn’t replace existing protections for either people with preexisting conditions or those who’ve signed up for Medicaid expansion.
If Edwards was happy to throw some shade at Landry, he pointedly avoided mentioning the most emotional debate of the session, the bill to mostly outlaw abortion after six weeks, even if the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest. It wouldn’t go into effect unless a similar law in Mississippi is upheld, but Edwards’ signature on it is causing him some real problems with his Democratic base. He’s showing every sign of just wanting to change the subject.
And he knows just what he wants to change it to: The reality of a finally functional budgeting process that allows for spending, not just cutting, for good news alongside the bad. Thursday, he repeatedly pointed out that the state is now in this position for the “first time in a decade.” Expect to hear that message a lot more between now and Election Day.