Legislative Report

With three weeks left, Legislature breaks into a trot The pace of activity in both chambers picked up this week as the time for action has shortened.

by Mike Stagg

Major money bills continued their slow but steady movement through both chambers this week, allowing legislators to turn their attention to other matters, with mixed results.

When the House and Senate adjourn today, lawmakers will have exactly three weeks to finish their work on the state budget and other essential work in this fiscal-only session. The session must end by 6 p.m. on June 8. The pace of activity in the Capitol picked up noticeably this week.

Alfred "Butch" Speer, clerk of the House, tells The Independent that both chambers have met for a total of 22 days thus far.

"We're allowed to meet only 45 days in this session," Speer says. "So, technically, we could meet on each one of the 21 days that remain after today. But, we're not."

Speer says the schedule laid out by Speaker Taylor Barras calls for the House not to meet on the next two Fridays and to take off Memorial Day.

"We are tentatively holding the two days of the final weekend as possible meeting dates, if they are needed," Speer explains.

The Senate Finance Committee has begun its work on HB1, the House's version of the state budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. The committee has met three times this week with most of those sessions dealing with HB1. The committee has also dealt with other bills as part of the process of clearing the decks to focus on the budget.

Photo by Robin May

Finance Committee chair Sen. Eric Lafleur says the committee will be back in session on Friday even as the rest of the Senate and House members go home for the weekend. The committee will meet today at 1 p.m. with members of the Edwards administration testifying about the impact of budget cuts imposed by House Republicans in HB1.

"We'll meet on Friday, take Saturday off, then come back on Sunday," Lafleur tells The Independent.

The general framework of the executive budget prepared by the Edwards administration and HB1 are fairly similar. Edwards had proposed that the Legislature build a budget based on 98 percent of the revenue the state is projected to have in the next fiscal year as forecast by the Revenue Estimating Conference — a four-member committee comprised of key members of the Legislature, the governor's office and an economist from a state university.

HB1 is based on 97.5 percent of the latest estimate. However, the difference comes down to revenue. Edwards wanted the budget based on the percentage of the REC estimate only after the state had taken the steps needed to stabilize its revenue base. Temporary taxes passed in 2016 expire next year. Edwards wants the legislature to address the so-called fiscal cliff before basing the budget on only a percentage of the REC estimate.

In the Jindal years, the administration based its budgets on 100 percent of the REC estimate. Revenue rarely materialized as projected, forcing mid-year budget cuts that decimated higher education and healthcare, the only parts of the state budget that are not constitutionally protected.

House Appropriations chair Rep. Cameron Henry, who during Jindal's second term was a frequent budget ally with Edwards in the House, argues that basing budgets on 100 percent of the REC estimate is "irresponsible."

"The only certainty in the budget process is that the REC estimate is going to be wrong," Henry tells The Independent. "We think that using 97.5 percent of REC as our revenue target will give us a budget that can avoid mid-year cuts and provide us a surplus at the end of the year."

To get the budget based on those percentages, Henry and the Appropriations Committee cut $234 million from the Louisiana Department of Health, and $69.8 million from the Department of Children and Family Services. It fully funded TOPS and the House leadership is committed to fully funding the MFP program that supports K-12 public education.

Lafleur and his committee are looking for ways to shift the spending in HB1 to blunt the cuts to LDH and DCFS. The details of their approach will likely become more clear over the weekend.

This is typical of the budget pattern that emerged in Jindal's second term where the House and Senate had starkly different views of the state's priorities. Changes made in HB1 in the Senate must be sent back to the House for concurrence, which won't be given. A conference committee involving an equal number of House and Senate members will then meet behind closed doors to hammer out a compromise budget agreement. In some sessions, that agreement has not arrived until the final day.

Because the House approved HB1 earlier in the process this year, it is possible that an agreement could be struck earlier.

"I think part of it is that Senate districts are larger and more diverse than House districts," Lafleur says. "I think we have a better feel for the broader interests of the state."

The House Ways and Means Committee has approved HB2 and HB3. These are, respectively, the capital outlay bill and the bill that provides the borrowing authority to fund those projects. The capital outlay bill is the state's construction budget; it includes everything from roads to some local water facilities. The bill includes a list of prioritized projects that are to be funded over the next five years, as state funding allows. The total cash funding in the bill is $1.5 billion. The House reduced general obligation bond funding for capital outlay from $1.9 billion to about $33 million as the state continues to work its way out of fiscal issues leftover from the Jindal years.

The fact that the capital outlay bill has cleared committee but has not yet been scheduled for a floor vote could indicate that it will be used in a bargaining chip with the Senate in negotiations over HB1.

Other legislation not caught up and the money struggle have been to move through both chambers. The most notable package of bills to gain momentum this week are part of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force proposals to reduce the size of the state's inmate population by reforming the sentencing and parole practices. The Edwards administration and the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association announced a compromise on the legislative package this week that narrows the focus of the reforms to non-violent offenders while extending the reform process out another year.

The result of the compromise was immediately apparent as three of the core bills in the package (SB220, SB221 and SB139) easily cleared the Senate on Tuesday. Those bills now go to the House for committee referrals.

Rep. Walt Leger III's HB489 which would reinvest the savings from the criminal justice reforms in training and other rehabilitation programs for inmates won approval from the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice on Wednesday and now awaits full House consideration.

SB16 by Sen. Dan Claitor addressing the issue of offering convicted juvenile offenders with a pathway to parole consideration also cleared that committee this week and awaits House action. The bill seeks to put Louisiana in compliance with a 2016 Supreme Court of the United States decision that mandated pathways for parole be offered to all juveniles who had been sentenced to life without the benefit of parole.

Rep. John Shroder's HB499 and HB509 dealing with the crime of stalking and with protective orders are awaiting consideration by the Senate Judiciary C Committee. Shroder tells The Independent that he is not sure when the committee will consider his bills. The bills represent an ongoing effort to address the state's domestic violence problem.

HB71, the controversial bill by Rep. Thomas Carmody that would require local governments to hold elections on the question of removing any war monuments — prompted by New Orleans' decision to remove four Jim Crow era monuments — passed the House this week and inflamed racial tensions in the body that is already divided along ideological lines in a way not seen before.

Carmody's bill is likely headed to a swift death in the Senate. The bill has been assigned to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee which is chaired by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans. In addition to Peterson, three other members of the Orleans Parish delegation are members of the committee — Sens. Wesley Bishop, Troy Carter and J.P. Morrell. Although the bill will not affect the process underway in New Orleans, if the four Orleans members of the committee vote against Carmody's bill, it would take only one more vote on the nine-member committee to kill it.

The other members of the committee are: Sens. Jack Donahue of Mandeville, Jim Fannin of Jonesboro, Neil Riser of Columbia (a candidate for state treasurer), Greg Tarver of Shreveport and Mike Walsworth of West Monroe.

The most likely vote could come from Tarver. There is an ongoing effort in Shreveport to remove a confederate soldier statue that stands in front of the Caddo Parish Courthouse. Tarver, though, is a maverick in the Senate.

Under the rules, committee chairs only vote to break ties. If the committee votes along racial lines as did the House, Peterson could cast the deciding vote.