At noon Monday, Louisiana legislators will convene for the start of their annual regular session, which this year is considered a “fiscal session.” Lawmakers are limited to five non-fiscal bills each, which in theory leaves more time to discuss how state government collects, manages and spends taxpayer dollars.
But many lawmakers will be having those conversations with more than just state finances on their minds.
“This whole session has an enormous cloud over it, and the cloud is the upcoming election,” said Pearson Cross, an associate political science professor at UL-Lafayette.
Cross doesn’t expect major fiscal reform during an election year, and he doesn’t see “much room to maneuver” in terms of state spending or revenue. While lawmakers will seek to create narratives for themselves going into the fall elections, relations may be less contentious than the past three years, which featured seven special sessions.
“I think it’s going to be a more pleasurable, less fractious session,” Cross said. “Since they’re not really going to have to do much heavy lifting.”
But Cross also noted recent “political maneuvering” at the Revenue Estimating Conference, where the House speaker, the Senate president and the Edwards administration haven’t been able to agree on how much money they’ll have available to spend. And for the first time that anyone can recall, the session starts with dueling budget bills, rather than a single bill based on the governor’s priorities.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we do not get a budget in the regular session,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana and former capitol bureau chief for The Times-Picayune.
Recent special sessions largely have been driven by debates over how much revenue state government needs. Scott said the revenue picture seems to be pretty much settled for now, though there will be calls for a higher gasoline tax, so this year the fiscal arguments will be more about how to spend the money.
At the same time, lawmakers, many of whom are about to be term-limited out of their current positions, will be looking for wedge issues they can tout on the campaign trail.
“It’s an election year, and that’s going to color everything that goes on,” Scott said. “There will be a lot of debate about tax bills and fiscal issues, but I think we’re going to see more positioning than we’re going to see real conclusions and real action.”
The regular session officially begins at noon on Monday and must end by 6 p.m. on June 6. Some of the hot topics for this year’s session include:
Possibly the biggest political question of the moment – how much money lawmakers will be able to spend – could be answered as early as next week. The Revenue Estimating Conference is expected to meet again on Wednesday, when they might finally agree to a revenue projection for the upcoming fiscal year.
Usually the governor’s budget becomes House Bill 1 and sets the baseline for the session’s spending debates. This year’s session starts with two budget bills – one based on the governor’s proposal, one authored by a leading House Republican – that are about $134 million apart. That split may be less important if the REC adopts a high enough revenue forecast to cover the difference.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has made higher pay for K-12 teachers and support personnel his top session priority. Republicans are on board with the general idea, though some would prefer rewarding high-performing teachers over across-the-board raises, and some have rapped Edwards over the lack of new spending for early childhood education. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has adopted Edwards’ proposal, which also includes an additional increase in per-pupil spending, into its official spending plan, which the legislature can approve or send back to BESE but not alter.
Though it may be a hard sell, raising the state’s gasoline tax will be discussed, possibly laying the groundwork for next year. A pending bill also would dedicate more of the gas tax to project construction, meaning the Department of Transportation and Development’s operations might need to be paid for out of the general fund.
Pending bills would make significant changes to the state’s tax system, such as establishing a flat income tax and creating a single statewide sales tax collector, though enacting major reforms may be even more difficult than usual in an election year.
Supporters of the state’s 2017 criminal justice overhaul may be forced to defend those changes. Some Republicans have made an issue of the state’s lack of executions since 2010, blaming Edwards, while other lawmakers are ready to get rid of the death penalty altogether.
Private sector pay
Edwards and his allies will try once again to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage and enact legislation meant to close the pay gap between men and women while business interests will be there to push back, arguing that increasing the minimum wage will lead to lost jobs, lost benefits, fewer hours for some workers, and ultimately hurt the workers higher wages are meant to help.
Louisiana will consider legalizing sports betting, as neighboring states have done, in hopes of making the state’s casinos more competitive and possibly raising more money for early childhood education or other needs.