June 6, 2017 01:09 PM

House rejects Senate changes to budget and construction bills. Differences few, but stark.

With just over 48 hours remaining in the fiscal-only 2017 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature, the fate of the focus of the session — the state budget — remains uncertain.

On Monday evening, the House rejected changes in HB1 that had been made by the Senate. The bill had remained on the House Order of the Day awaiting concurrence but it was Democrats who pushed for the vote. Apparently sensing trouble in the GOP Caucus after days of reports critical of the way the majority has run the House during this session, the Democrats had hoped for Republican defections. They only got one, Rep. Kenny Havard, who earlier in the session publicly criticized his House colleagues' loyalty to business lobbyists rather than than the needs of their constituents and the state. The House also unanimously rejected Senate changes in HB2, the Capital Outlay bill.

The outcome of the vote was not unexpected, although the timing was. The Senate had approved its version of HB1 on Saturday. The bill sat on the Order of the Day without a scheduled vote for most of the day Monday.

HB1 sat on Tuesday's House Order of the Day throughout the morning session without Speaker Taylor Barras naming a conference committee to negotiate that bill, as well as HB2, and the bills for supplemental funding to close the current fiscal year and a bill to provide funding for ancillary state services in the new fiscal year which beings on July 1.

The Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate each get to appoint three members to conference committees to negotiate bills on which the two chambers cannot reach an agreement. On HB1 the conferees are likely to include the chairs of the two committees that did the main work on the bill — Rep. Cameron Henry, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Eric Lafleur, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. The other two members from each chamber are at the discretion of the respective chamber leader.

The lack of a sense of urgency on the House side since HB1 returned from the Senate is striking. The Associated Press reports that there are two sticking points for House GOP leaders on HB1. The first is that the Senate included provisions for a pay raise for state employees. The second is that the Senate voted to use 100 percent of the revenue forecast generated by the Revenue Estimating Conference.

Henry has said all session that basing the budget on 100 percent of the REC estimate is "irresponsible." Lafleur has argued that making the cuts without consideration of their impact is also irresponsible.

Partisan tension has been rising in the House throughout the session. Henry and GOP Caucus head Rep. Lance Harris would only reveal their budget formula but not the specifics of their plan to the public or to House Democrats until the Appropriations Committee vote on May 1. In the May 4 House floor debate on HB1, Harris and his majority repeatedly beat back Democratic attempts to restore funding to departments that the Appropriations Committee cut deeply — particularly the Louisiana Department of Health and the Department of Children and Family Services.

House Democrats retaliated two weeks ago by blocking approval of HB3, the bond bill that provides funding for the Capital Outlay bill, the state's main construction bill. They are still blocking the bill, seeking to extract a commitment from Barras to more equitable representation on the key House money committees — Appropriations and Ways and Means.

The strain of the fighting has become too much for Rep. Gene Reynolds, the Minden Democrat who succeeded John Bel Edwards as head of his party's House Caucus. Reynolds announced on Monday that he will step down as caucus chair after the current session or after the special session already called by Edwards if the House and Senate don't take care of the state's budget, finance and construction bills by the end of the session Thursday.

The House and Senate adjourned shortly before noon and were each scheduled to resume work at 1:30 p.m.

The current session must end by 6 p.m. Thursday. The state fiscal year begins on July 1.

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