May 25, 2017 10:08 AM

With two weeks left in the session, tension in the House again erupt

Photo by Robin May

The House Democratic Caucus used one of the few levers available to it to influence state budget and revenue policies on Wednesday to block bond funding for the capital outlay bill. The move was the latest public flareup of resentment against the way the Republican majority has conducted business in the House during this session.

The move was largely symbolic as House GOP Caucus leader Lance Harris says the bill (HB3) will be brought up for a vote again next week. However, it came on the heels of a walkout by members of the Legislative Black Caucus last week after the racially charged vote on HB71 by Rep. Thomas Carmody to require local votes before Confederate and other war monuments can be removed.

The vote not only fractured the House, it exposed a racial divide among Democrats that may have propelled yesterday's aggressive move.

HB2 is the state's capital outlay bill. It is the list of construction projects the state commits to implement over the next five years. It is, more often than not, a wish list as the state does not have the money to pay for everything on it. Rep. Neil Abramson of New Orleans, a Democrat, chairs the Ways and Means Committee which compiled the bill in consultation with the Edwards administration.

On the floor of the House in Wednesday's debate, Abramson told his colleagues that the bill was a much more realistic version of what the state could do with its construction dollars than in previous years. The bill passed by a 96-4 vote.

HB3 is the bill that provides bonding authority for the state to borrow money to help fund the projects in HB2. Passage of the bill is usually automatic after passage of HB2. However, procedurally, HB3 is a revenue bill and because of that it requires approval by two-thirds (70 votes) of the 105-member House.

When the vote was called on HB3, it only mustered 56 votes — 14 votes short of the 70 it needed to get the required two-thirds majority.

While Harris railed against "Washington style" tactics used by the Democrats, Jan Moller of the Louisiana Budget Project noted on Thursday morning that House Republicans had used the same tactic against Democrats in the final year of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's term.

Democrats hold 41 seats in the House. They were relegated to the role of spectators in the discussions on HB1, which were held largely out of public view and controlled by the Republican Caucus. The Appropriations Committee did not hold its customary series of public hearings on the budget where department heads were allowed to discuss the impact of the executive budget or proposed cuts as was the case in prior years, as has been revealed in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee in recent days as it considers the bill.

The Appropriations Committee chaired by Rep. Cameron Henry spent five hours on its final markup of its version of HB1 before sending it to the full House for debate after its May 1 meeting. Three days later, HB1 passed 63-40 vote. Democrats offered a number of amendments during the floor debate but all but one (an amendment to strip a provision to divert flood disaster relief money to the Comite River diversion project) failed.

During the run up to the Appropriations Committee's action, Democratic Caucus leader Rep. Gene Reynolds complained that his members were being kept in the dark about the contents of the budget plan being worked on by Henry's committee.

Henry, in an interview with The Independent, said the committee did their work on a formula devised by GOP Caucus leader Harris to fund state government based on spending 97.5 percent of the amount of revenue that the Revenue Estimating Conference forecast the state would bring in during the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

By sticking to their caucus plan and essentially playing keep away with the details of HB1, House Republicans interjected a level of partisanship in the budget process that has been rare in Baton Rouge. Democrats were powerless to do anything about it. Their caucus is too small and GOP caucus discipline was stronger this year than in the 2016 session when there were defections over the budget in the floor debate over HB1.

Black lawmakers comprise 24 of the 41-member Democratic Caucus, but the leadership of the caucus has remained white. John Bel Edwards led the caucus for eight years before being elected governor. The Legislative Black Caucus has remained a caucus separate from the Democratic Caucus. The reason why was exposed in the House vote on Carmody's Confederate monuments bill on May 15.

The bill was one of several introduced in response to New Orleans' now-completed effort to remove three statues honoring Confederate leaders and one monument which celebrated the White League's Liberty Place riot that sought to overthrow Louisiana's elected, bi-racial government in 1874.

Carmody was the only person to speak in favor of his bill. Most of the speakers to rise against the bill were black, although a few white Democrats did as well.

While members of the Black Caucus walked out of the House in protest after the vote, members of the caucus also took note of the members of the Democratic Caucus who either voted in favor of Carmody's bill or did not vote on the. bill, including caucus chairman Reynolds. Democratic Reps. Andy Anders, James Armes, Robert Billiot, Chad Brown, Jerry Gisclair, Dorothy Sue Hill, Major Thibaut and Malinda White voted yes on HB71. In addition to Reynolds, Democrats Neil Abramson, Robby Carter, Robert Johnson, Bernard LeBas and Barbara Norton did not vote. All but Norton are white.

That the Democrats were able to muster some discipline on the HB3 vote on Wednesday, just over a week after their own rifts were exposed in the HB71 vote, demonstrates that they might be able to form the core of a coalition on the version of HB1 that will emerge from a conference committee in the final week of the session.

Eric Lafleur
Photo by Robin May

Sen. Eric Lafleur's Finance Committee will meet on Saturday on the budget. He's promised to have a Senate version of the bill ready by Memorial Day. The bill could be made special order of the day that week rather than allowing for the three days of readings by title provided for in Senate rules. The bill is going to be markedly different from the House version. It might be amended on the floor of the Senate before passage.

The Senate version of HB1 will then go back to the House. The House can either accept the Senate changes (unlikely) or reject them (likely). If the Senate changes are rejected, a conference committee comprised of an equal number of House and Senate members will meet behind closed doors to try to negotiate a bill that each side believes can win majority backing in their respective chambers.

It's the kind of high-stakes drama that has become routine in sessions. The difference now, though, is the more partisan nature of politics in the House. Party discipline can easily be enforced on the vote on HB1 as it is returned from the Senate.

House Republicans are willing to try to drive in the conference deliberations to get a bill that will satisfy budget hardliners who have dominated the process thus far.

The session must end by 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 8.


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