Legislative Report

Session off to slow start; here’s your preview

by Mike Stagg

Photo by Robin May

[Editor’s Note: This is the first of daily reporting The Independent’s Mike Stagg will be producing on developments at the Louisiana Capitol during the 2017 Legislative Session. The IND will package Stagg’s stories along with supplemental reporting from the Associated Press and the Manship School of Journalism at LSU as part of our daily Legislative Report, with special emphasis on bills that impact Lafayette and the Acadiana region. This exclusive focus is made possible by our sponsors, Haynie & Associates and Domengeaux, Wright, Roy & Edwards. News15 will also include Stagg's reports in its legislative coverage.]

Legislators return to Baton Rouge for the first full week of the 2017 regular session after the Easter break, but don’t expect them to plunge into the heavy lifting of budget writing just yet.

The central component of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ tax reform package — the Commercial Activity Tax — has not yet been finalized, and House Republicans have not yet put forward their alternate set of ideas about how to deal with the state’s lingering financial problems.

The framework for the discussions is the looming fiscal crisis in 2018 when temporary taxes agreed upon by Edwards and the Legislature in 2016 expire. Edwards is proposing a complete overhaul of the state’s tax base, expanding what is taxed through a combination of eliminating exemptions and taxing some previously untaxed services. The governor says his approach would allow the state to lower state sales taxes across the board.

House Republicans maintain that the state has enough money to continue operating without new revenue. Edwards has challenged them to detail a proposal. The outlines of the Republican plan could emerge this week, starting on Tuesday morning when the House Ways & Means Committee begins its meetings. The committee has responsibility for tax policy, an essential part of the budget process. Democrat Neil Abramson of New Orleans chairs Ways and Means but is not considered an Edwards ally.

The House Appropriations Committee writes the budget, also known as HB1. Preliminary discussions on HB1 will begin on Tuesday morning when the committee convenes at 9 a.m. Committee Chairman Cameron Henry of Metairie also heads a faction in the House GOP Caucus that has consistently pushed the approach that the state can cut its way out of its recurring revenue crises.

This is a fiscal-only session, which means it runs on a shorter calendar. The session opened on April 10 and must end by 6 p.m. on June 8. Both the House and the Senate are limited to meeting for 45 of those 60 days.

The trend in recent years is for the bulk of the session to be consumed by HB1 making its way through the House Appropriations Committee and then the full House. The Senate has gotten the bill with more than half of the session having expired. Most of its work has involved removing or otherwise addressing some of the draconian cuts that find favor among a majority in the House.

The Senate’s work on the bill is sent back to the House where it is usually rejected and referred to a conference committee comprised of an equal number of House and Senate members selected by Speaker Taylor Barras and Senate President John Alario. The resulting bill usually wins approval in each chamber, but not without grumbling.

In fiscal-only sessions, each legislator can only introduce five bills that are not budget-related.

One of the primary non-budget efforts that will get legislators attention is a set of bills aimed at ending the Louisiana’s reign as the state with the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the country.

A coalition of conservative and liberal organizations ranging from the Pelican Institute to the Southern Poverty Law Center participated in a year-long process of reviewing the state’s crime, sentencing and prison practices using data gathered by the Pew Foundation.

The Justice Reinvestment Task Force is headed by Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc. Three of the 15-member task force members were from Acadiana — 16th JDC District Attorney Bo Duhe, 16th JDC Judge Lori Landry and Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia.

There is no single bill representing the reforms. Two of the first bills part of that package will be heard on Tuesday when Senate Judiciary C will consider two bills by Baton Rouge Sen. Dan Claitor. SB16 deals with juvenile inmates who were sentenced to life in prison without parole, a practice declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Louisiana still has not addressed the cases of hundreds of former juveniles now serving time in the Department of Corrections system. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association opposes aspects of Claitor’s bill.

Claitor’s SB146 proposes reforms to the state’s habitual offender law.

Sen. Page Cortez’s SB196, which places further restrictions on sex offenders, is also scheduled to be heard by Senate Judiciary C on Tuesday.

Kaplan Sen. Jonathan Perry’s SB86 would give some parish governments the ability to get their legal counsel from some place other than their local district attorneys. Vermilion Parish is included among the parishes that would be affected by the bill if it becomes law. That bill is scheduled to be considered by Senate Judiciary B on Tuesday.

Ville Platte Sen. Eric LaFleur has introduced SB234. The bill would eliminate the ability to provide moveable property as security for cash bail bonds. That bill will also be considered by Senate Judiciary B.

It’s a fiscal session. Money is on everyone’s mind. The tenor of the session will be set by the degree to which the governor and House Republicans decide to fight for their respective approaches.

Meanwhile, the state’s $13 billion backlog in road projects lengthens, uncertainty hangs over the public/private partnerships now operating the former LSU Hospitals network, and state government continues to shift public higher education costs off of its books and onto students and families.