Legislative Report

Louisiana has a budget, but it cost more to get it

by Mike Stagg

Flanked by criminal justice reform advocates, Gov. John Bel Edwards signs the 10 bills that will make sweeping changes in the state criminal code, sentencing practices and parole programs — reforms that represent the chief accomplishment of the Legislature during the regular session.
Photo by Robin May

It took a costly special session, but Louisiana will enter the new fiscal year on July 1 with a budget in place.

A week and a day after the regular session ended in chaos and acrimony on the House floor after the leadership there blocked a vote on a Senate compromise budget offer, the House and Senate agreed on a budget that was nearly identical to the one available on that final day.

After a weekend cooling off period, the House returned to work Monday, June 12, with the Appropriations Committee doing what it did not do in the regular session — listening to department heads on the impacts of the cuts proposed in its original version of HB1.

On June 14, Rep. Walt Leger III picked up where he’d been cut off at the end of the regular session and put together a bipartisan coalition that reshaped HB1 to reflect the offer made by the Senate the prior week. Leger won the support of 13 Republicans and two independents to win House approval (56-46) of what had been the Senate’s version of HB1 from the regular session.

Senate Finance Chair Eric Lafleur won approval of the new House version of the bill without amendments, which set up the June 16 Senate floor debate on HB1. Despite a push by some Republicans to amend the bill, which would have forced more votes on it in the House, the Senate voted to approve the version of the bill Leger convinced the House to adopt without changes by a 26-9 vote.

The Senate did tweak HB2, the Capital Outlay bill, but Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Chair Jean-Paul Morrell told members that the tweak had been made in consultation with House Ways and Means Chair Rep. Neil Abramson and the change would not provoke another skirmish on the House floor.

On June 15 in the Capitol Park Welcome Center, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the 10 bills at the heart of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force criminal justice reforms. The enactment of those reforms was the chief accomplishment of the Legislature during the regular session.

The bills make changes in the state criminal code, sentencing practices and parole programs in a push to have Louisiana relinquish its title as having the highest rate of incarceration in the country.

The bills, which ultimately drew the support of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, were the work of a broad, if unlikely, coalition of criminal justice reform allies. Supporters included the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Pelican Institute, Right on Crime, Louisianians for Prison Alternatives and the Louisiana Family Forum. The broad support of the reforms across the political spectrum was in stark contrast to the highly partisan fighting over the budget and tax issues during the session.

The reforms focus primarily on nonviolent criminals and providing better preparation for them to re-enter society after serving their sentences. The reforms will reduce Louisiana’s inmate population by about 10 percent over the next decade, saving the state $262 million over that time. The bills signed into law by Edwards obligate the state to reinvest 70 percent of those dollars in inmate rehabilitation and educational services. — Mike Stagg