Blather, Rinse, Repeat: A Cynic’s Guide to the Regular Session

It’s abundantly clear that state lawmakers are tired as they head into the 2018 regular legislative session – not surprising, since they’ve only had a week to recuperate from the contentiously ineffective special session, which followed two back-to-back years of back-to-back-to-back rounds of lawmaking. More than 1100 bills have been pre-filed for this session, and an abundance of them reflect the same tired thinking and themes that have stultified progress for the state as a whole, exacerbating partisan suspicions within the legislative body and among the citizenry. There are a number of bills that can be categorized as “do-overs”, also known as “try, try again” measures. Seven of those reprise the House Republican leadership’s demanded “budget reforms” from the 2018 special session: revising the state spending cap, establishing the “Louisiana Checkbook” transparency website, and Medicaid reforms – including work requirements, paying premiums for Medicaid coverage, and auditing recipients’ declared income to prevent fraud. Despite opposition Democrats (and the Legislative Black Caucus, in particular) voiced during the special session about the “punitive” appearance of those Medicaid proposals, additional bills have been filed that clarify the ultimate intent. Rep. Sherman Mack (R-Livingston) has HB 88, creating the crime of “government benefits fraud,” and HB 163, letting the Attorney General start a Medicaid recipient fraud unit. Additional bills filed by House Republicans substantiate this “punish the poor” theme. HB 73 by Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) would let a justice of the peace or constable serving a wage garnishment to add 6% to the total, and collect that money first. Jay Morris (R-West Monroe) wants the legislature approving any waiver of work requirements for SNAP (food stamp) benefits (all of which are provided by the federal government, by the way). Raymond Garofalo (R- Chalmette) wants those who drop out of college or lose eligibility to pay TOPS back. And HB 446 by Reid Falconer (R-Mandeville) would fine people and put them in jail if they witness someone being hurt and don’t assist them or call for help, i.e., “be a Good Samaritan…or else.” On the opposite side are bills seeking to help the poor, nearly all filed by Black Caucus members, and nearly all attempted in prior sessions. From HB 192 by Joseph Bouie (D-New Orleans) setting a state minimum wage to HB 605 by Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport), Equal Pay for Women, these measures attempt to minimize some of the income disparities that contribute to Louisiana’s bottom ranking on a plethora of national quality-of-life lists. There are bills to prohibit shaming of students who can’t afford to pay for school meals, a requirement to more frequently test drinking water for lead, and bills to decriminalize marijuana possession. A bill by Marcus Hunter (D-Monroe), HB 635, would require state agencies to collect data and combat “environmental and public health impacts on communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities” – in other words, fight those groups’ disproportionate exposure to air, water and soil pollutants. And SB 455 by Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) would effectively create a Louisiana “War on Poverty,” by requiring all agencies of state government to implement policies and procedures in a comprehensive plan to facilitate “economic independence for Louisiana families”. There are other progressive concepts docketed, as well; they range from a complete prohibition on talking or texting while driving (HB 619 by Huval [R-Breaux Bridge]), to changing marriage law terminology to say “spouses” instead of “husband and wife” (SB 98 by Morrell [D-New Orleans]), to abolishing the death penalty (HB 162, Terry Landry [D- New Iberia] and SB 51 by Morrell). And once again, Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) will attempt to get the state to allow comprehensive sex education taught in public schools. There are do-overs on abortion restrictions that have been enjoined by the courts: four bills seek to tweak those laws in order to resolve issues of concern raised in federal court rulings. And two bills by Sen. John Milkovich (D-Shreveport) seek to further circumscribe access to pregnancy termination. SB 181 would completely prohibit the procedure after 15 weeks. SB 325 would allow local DAs to shut down abortion providers, and allow prosecution of state Health Department employees who did not do so first. Yet shadowing the entire session like a building thundercloud is the Legislature’s inability to solve the state’s overall fiscal uncertainty. Seventeen bills propose giving more autonomy to local governments in the areas of taxes, incentives, school standards and minimum wage. Another 17 bills propose one or another variation on telling the Governor and cabinet how to do their jobs. These include requiring the Division of Administration to consult with lawmakers while preparing the Governor’s annual budget proposal (SB 340 by Sen. Jack Donahue [R-Mandeville]) to setting up a task force to find more governmental functions that can be privatized (HB 590 by Rep. Rick Edmonds [R-Baton Rouge]). Rep. Tony Bacala is renewing his push to require managed-care providers be contracted to oversee Medicaid patients in nursing homes, while Sen. Conrad Appel is bringing back his “one board to rule them all” concept for higher education. The measure abolishes the separate boards governing the LSU system, the Southern University System, the University of Louisiana System, and the Community and Technical College System, creating a new overall governing body in lieu of the Board of Regents. Appel tried this in 2011, and again in 2016, failing spectacularly both times. For the past two years, we’ve heard a litany of complaints from lawmakers regarding how much state revenue is locked away by constitutional and statutory dedications, referred to as “stat deds.” This session offers two bills removing some of those restrictions: HB 485 by Rep. Rob Shadoin (R-Ruston), eliminating some constitutional dedications, and HB 664 by Edmonds, sunsetting some of the statutory entities that receive dedicated funds. On the other hand, there are eight bills to dedicate more chunks of revenue: to roads, disabilities waivers, medical research, and TOPS. And there are four bills calling for a constitutional convention, with an eye to rewriting the parts of Louisiana’s main governance document dealing with fiscal matters. It makes one wonder, though – do we really want lawmakers punching holes in the drywall to rewire the building, when they can’t even agree to replace a burned-out lightbulb? Meanwhile, Gov. John Bel Edwards will be pushing lawmakers to finish their regular session work early. “I’ve already asked President Alario and Speaker Barras to adjourn the regular session in mid-May,” the governor told the capitol press corps following the ignominious end of the special session. “Doing so would allow us to have a special session that would conclude by June 4th, which is the scheduled adjournment day of the regular session, so that the taxpayers wouldn’t have to worry about any additional cost of that special session. And also so that we can get this problem resolved fully with almost a month before this fiscal year ends, so the state agencies, higher education and all of the people across Louisiana will know what to expect come July first.” But that proposal also hinges on how quickly HB 1, the budget bill, moves. Even though the governor has said, “I don’t believe it is possible to pass a budget with $692-million less in state general fund,” Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry seemed unconcerned when I asked him about it this past week. “We all need to start off from the right number before we can move anywhere,” the Republican from Metairie said. “I think that’s what we’re going to work on at the beginning of the session, and make sure we understand where we need to be. “Then what we’re going to do is we’ll start like we always do, with public testimony, committee hearings, subcommittee hearings, and work through it like we would normally do. “Normally the lag time is when it goes over to the Senate. They usually wait further to the end of the session to deal with it, so they’re going to have to speed up,” he added. Asked what he thinks is the deadline for getting the budget done and the revenue hole filled Henry said, “Depends on whether we have a special session after the regular session, so, uh, end of June would be ideal.” The new budget year begins July 1. In the meantime, there is one bill filed that could put some “fun” back into our dysfunctional Legislature, if only for a few minutes. SB 436 by Senator Norby Chabert (R-Houma) would designate the Cajun waltz as Louisiana’s state dance. I can hear the accordion now. Fais-do-do, anyone?