The traditional rule among state lawmakers during election-year legislative sessions can be summed up simply: Avoid controversy at all costs — don’t rock the boat at election time.
Will that be the case this year?
Maybe, maybe not. The annual session begins Monday, April 8, and most lawmakers will be running for re-election or for other offices. More than a few will retire, which means they’ll have nothing to lose — and nothing to fear.
One matter that’ll stir controversy is the annual state budget. For several months, the Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) has failed to agree on the amount of money lawmakers will have to spend in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Actually, three of the REC’s four members agree, but the state constitution requires unanimity. The holdout has been House Speaker Taylor Barras, who cautions against what he considers optimistic revenue projections.
Barras perhaps can be forgiven for harboring his doubts; he’s a banker. Nonetheless, he has come under fire from Gov. John Bel Edwards and others, who accuse him of playing politics with the budget — as if that’s a new concept. Barras answers that it would be imprudent to adopt rosy projections when Louisiana’s budget depends so heavily on the price of oil, which can fluctuate on a moment’s notice. On the other hand, independent economists agree the state will take in more money than Barras is willing to recognize. It’s fair to say it’s all a guessing game.
The REC meets again April 12, four days after the session begins. We’ll see if anything changes.
Fights over the state budget are as old as the republic, but they have intensified since Edwards, a Democrat, took office. His battles with the GOP-controlled Legislature are as much about policy as they are about politics.
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Another topic sure to generate controversy is state Sen. Danny Martiny’s push to legalize sports betting in Louisiana. Mississippi legalized it a year ago; since then, Gulf Coast casinos have swelled with Bayou State bettors on game days. My guess is there’s enough support for the concept of sports betting to pass it, but with so many existing forms of “gaming” in Louisiana — and so many competing venues for it — a sports betting bill could collapse under the weight of everyone who tries to climb aboard the bandwagon.
Speaking of betting, the Harrah’s hotel bill will be back this year. Once again we’ll see a proposal to extend the license of Louisiana’s only official land-based casino (a legal fiction now that “riverboat casinos” don't have to cruise to operate) in exchange for a high-end hotel and millions more in guaranteed returns to the state. Harrah’s bill died in the final minutes of last year’s session amid cries that it lacked an independent economic analysis. Since then, such an analysis showed that Harrah’s wasn’t bluffing.
These are just a few of the items competing for lawmakers’ attention this year. There’ll be lots more to fight about — for those spoiling for a fight.
Will the old rule of “nothing controversial” during election-year sessions remain in effect? It’s too early to tell just yet, but we’ll know soon enough.