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Friday, June 9, 2017

Da Winnas & Da Loozas of the 2017 Louisiana legislative session: Part 1

Posted By on Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 1:25 PM

click to enlarge The Louisiana legislature in the final hours of the regular session. - CAITIE BURKES/MANSHIP SCHOOL NEWS SERVICE
  • CAITIE BURKES/MANSHIP SCHOOL NEWS SERVICE
  • The Louisiana legislature in the final hours of the regular session.

The partisan divide in the Louisiana Legislature is more palpable than ever, especially in the House of Representatives. Whether you call it Washington-style politics or something else, there’s no denying that the days of lawmakers putting their differences aside and getting along on a personal level are fading fast.

That makes legislating look like something even bloodier than making sausage.

When the House adjourned amid a ham-fistedly orchestrated meltdown — which was designed to prevent a vote on the state operating budget — it was obvious that most of the carnage (and most of the bloodletting) came at the hands of the House GOP leadership. That made Gov. John Bel Edwards look like a “winna” even though the governor suffered his share of defeats on other fronts.

Speaking of other fronts, one of the bright spots of the session was the bipartisan effort to enact meaningful criminal justice reform — a heroic feat that proved lawmakers are indeed capable of working together when they put their minds to it (and put partisan political agendas aside).

All of which brings us to our annual review of the slaughters and triumphs — Da Winnas and Da Loozas — which we’ve done for more than 30 years now. Let’s start with …

DA WINNAS

1. Business Interests — The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and other business groups led the fight to defeat Edwards’ proposed commercial activity tax, which was akin to shooting fish in a barrel, but they did it handily nonetheless. LABI also flexed its muscle on equal pay and minimum wage bills.

2. New Orleans — The city mostly played defense this year, and it did that very well, beating back the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill, the Confederate monuments bill, and a bill to bar cities from requiring residential developers to include affordable housing in their projects. The city also helped defeat a controversial bill (pushed by Uber and Lyft) to prohibit local governments from regulating internet-based transportation network companies.

3. TOPS Scholars — The governor, the House and the Senate support fully funding the beloved TOPS college scholarship program, but that remains to be done as next year’s budget hasn’t passed yet. Meanwhile, lawmakers refused to tinker with the program’s GPA requirements.

click to enlarge State Rep. Helena Moreno.
  • State Rep. Helena Moreno.
4. Domestic Violence Victims — Same-sex couples and dating partners won coverage under Louisiana’s domestic abuse laws thanks to bills by state Reps. Helena Moreno of New Orleans and Pat Connick of Marrero.

5. District Attorneys — They held out for concessions on the package of criminal justice reforms, and in the end they got what they wanted: reforms that focus on nonviolent offenders. All efforts to revise Louisiana’s felony sentencing laws were postponed until next year … or later.

6. Louisiana Filmmakers — Lawmakers extended Louisiana’s film tax credit program to 2025 while also maintaining the program’s $180 million spending cap, which was set to expire next year.

7. Students with Disabilities — This one hurts because it’s absurd that Louisiana took this long to prohibit schools from administering corporal punishment to children who are disabled. The same can’t be said for other students — that’s still up to local school boards. Sheesh!

8. Gov. John Bel Edwards — The governor won and lost some key battles, but he’s a winna this year by default because of the House’s chaotic final minutes. The Lower Chamber’s meltdown proved that Edwards has been right all along in saying that a band of ultra-conservative House Republicans, led by Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry and GOP Delegation Chair Lance Harris, are hell-bent on trying to embarrass him at all costs. “They just need to grow up,” Edwards sniped after the session’s messy end. He also wins because he has forced them into a special session to do the job they refused to do by June 8 — and voters are getting that message. Elsewhere, Edwards helped secure passage of all 10 criminal justice reform bills (which needed GOP support) and major opioid prescription reforms. The governor’s GOP opponents no doubt will crow that he lost all tax measures — particularly his ill-fated commercial activity tax (CAT) — as well as bills seeking equal pay for women and minimum wage hikes. That is all true, which is why he only wins by default. Job One for lawmakers every year is to pass an operating budget and a construction budget. The GOP-majority Legislature failed to do either task, thereby ceding the high ground to Edwards. Which brings us to …

DA LOOZAS

1. House GOP Leaders — Speaker Taylor Barras was presented with the “Gentleman of the House” award near the end of the session, but he’s supposed to be the House’s head and master, not its prom king. The Speaker dawdled in the final 10 minutes of the session, thereby preventing a vote on the compromise budget — after a majority of his colleagues (mostly Democrats and 10 Republicans) voted for a motion to discharge the budget bill from a conference committee. Taking cues from Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry (whom many consider the de facto speaker) and GOP Delegation Chair Lance Harris, Barras awkwardly helped run out the clock in the final minutes of the session. Then, when the House reconvened in the special session 30 minutes later, the ruling GOP cabal orchestrated a three-day weekend — no doubt to shore up Barras’ support as speaker. The same 53 votes that wanted to consider the budget can also, potentially, choose a new speaker. The House may be empty over the weekend, but the smell of fear lingers there.
2. Louisiana Taxpayers — Lawmakers and Edwards declined even to consider supporting a package of tax reforms recommended by a blue-ribbon committee of experts who spent almost a year drafting tax reform proposals. As one senator told me early on, “There’s just no appetite for fiscal reform.” Really? Do our elected leaders think taxpayers hunger for what we have now? Also, lawmakers’ refusal to adopt operating and construction budgets has forced the current special session, which will cost taxpayers an unnecessary $500,000 or more.

3. The Working Poor — A bill to raise the minimum wage in Louisiana — and only minimally at that — was beat down by business interests and conservatives. Senate Bill 153 by Sen. Troy Carter (D-Algiers) would have increased the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 over a two-year period.

4. Working Women — Once again, bills intended to enhance Louisiana’s equal pay laws got clobbered by business interests and conservatives.

click to enlarge Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. - CREATIVE COMMONS/GAGE SKIDMORE
  • CREATIVE COMMONS/GAGE SKIDMORE
  • Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.
5. Attorney General Jeff Landry — He has been the leading advocate for enacting a “sanctuary cities” law, and for the second year in a row he lost this fight. Landry’s histrionics in support of the bill are making him a clownish figure.

6. Death Penalty Opponents — Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge and Rep. Terry Landry of New Iberia made valiant but doomed efforts to end Louisiana’s death penalty. If there’s a consolation prize, lawmakers passed a version of criminal justice reform that will give 131 elderly inmates who were convicted of second-degree murder decades ago a (long) shot at parole.

7. Metro Baton Rouge — Defeat of the proposed gasoline tax hit the Capital Area hardest because of metro Baton Rouge’s chronic traffic issues, but the tax’s demise affects all corners of the state. Despite staunch support from business interests, the tax could not garner enough votes even after it had been watered down.

8. Traffic Scofflaws — Lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting drivers from applying “a covering or any substance to the license plate” or using any device or film that “obscures from any angle the numbers, characters, year registration sticker, or name of the jurisdiction issuing the plate.” So much for beating those traffic cameras.

Now for the really bad news: Next week in the special session, things could get bloodier — and even more partisan.

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