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Fanning the Flames

Issues and conflicts that dominated the special session are kindling tension in the regular session’s second week.

It’s safe to say the special session was a dumpster fire, but rather than taking precautions against a repeat conflagration during this regular session, it appears some lawmakers are not averse to tossing flammable materials on the smoldering embers.

Monday’s activities at the Capitol began innocuously enough, with the House Democratic Caucus announcing it had elected Marksville Rep. Robert Johnson as caucus chair, replacing Minden Rep. Gene Reynolds, who announced his resignation the final day of the special session.

Johnson issued a statement, saying, “Despite years of notice about the looming fiscal cliff, and billions of dollars’ worth of ideas to fix the problem – backed by a bi-partisan tax group – those leading the House Republicans have focused solely on setting up a Republican run for Governor in 2019. Our caucus is focused on solutions for families.”

Not to be outdone, a small group of House Republicans launched a Youtube video. Arrayed like kids in an awkwardly composed panoramic class photo, 21 of the House’s 60 GOP members appear in it. Modeling his delivery and gestures on every car dealer ad shown during the evening news, Caucus chair Lance Harris makes his pitch.

“We have a message for the citizens of this state: we’re fighting for you and we will continue to fight for you. Despite what you may hear or read, we do not have a billion dollar budget deficit. That’s fact. We’re looking to reduce spending and find every bit of savings we can, before we look at any portion of a tax renewal. Despite what some may say, you can’t spend your way out of debt.”

That’s obviously a direct contradiction to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ oft-repeated admonition that, “We can’t cut our way to prosperity.”

The House Appropriations Committee continued its examination of the budget proposal, calling in statewide elected officials and department heads to testify.
During the morning hearings, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon appeared, as did Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain. And though the Attorney General’s Department of Justice was quizzed closely about its spending growth from last fiscal year to the current fiscal year ($56.2 mil in FY 2017 to $75.6 mil in FY 2018), with a proposal to reduce the FY 2019 budget by 9% (to $68.8 mil ), Landry himself did not attend.

The afternoon Appropriations hearing brought the Department of Corrections to the table. At one point during the budget discussion, Angola Warden Darrel Vannoy spoke of his problems with retaining corrections officers, noting that a majority of those employed as guards are now women (598 female guards, 470 male guards).

Rep. Kenny Havard (R-St. Francisville) said he finds that concerning.

“I’m not the most politically correct guy in the room for sure — but you don’t need a bunch of ladies guarding men,” Havard said. “I mean, if a fight breaks out, do you want four ladies running down there to save you? Or do you want four guys?”

(Havard, if you remember, was the author of the infamous “stripper amendment” in 2016, urging weight limitations for exotic dancers, as long as the state was going to establish a minimum age.)

Over on the Senate side of the Capitol, the Finance Committee was revisiting a hot topic from the special session: to require a “fiscal transparency” website. SB 363 by Sen. Rick Ward (R-Port Allen) would facilitate the already ongoing process of converting all state agencies to a uniform operating system, and set a timeline for improvements and additions of information to the current state fiscal web portal LaTrac.

There’s a $30-million fiscal note attached to the bill however, and representatives from the state Supreme Court testified it would cost them another $20-25 million to bring the state’s judicial system into compliance.

Sen. Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro) urged that the bill be set aside – for now.

“We’re looking at a budget that cuts higher ed and health care, but we’re looking at passing a bill that has a significant cost,” Fannin said. “I think taxpayers would like to have this info and have it readily available, but I don’t think many would say they would rather have this over TOPS and higher ed.

“I also don’t think, come July 1st, government’s going to shut down if we don’t pass this bill.”

As the committee had already agreed not to advance any bill with a cost attached, the bill was set aside.

In Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs, Sen J.P. Morrell’s proposed constitutional amendment to make local governing bodies’ approval for the granting of industrial tax exemptions (ITEPs) permanent, advanced to the Senate floor without any committee member’s objections. There was opposition to it, though, from business and industry groups.

“We suggest that the current setup within the constitution is adequate,” LABI’s Jim Patterson said. “Currently, the law allows the governor and the Board of Commerce and Industry to determine this. Leave it alone and let a future governor have the freedom to decide how to approach the issue.”

Morrell responded, “It’s interesting that whenever the previous governor tried to put his policies into statute, no problem. But whenever this governor’s policies are offered as law, it’s objectionable.”

When the full House convened in late afternoon, they got down to the business of advancing bills to the Senate, beginning with HB 90, by Rep. Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge).

Presented as a “reform” of the capital outlay process, the bill requires that non-state entities seeking lines of credit through the Bond Commission will have to get House Ways & Means and Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs committee approval first. Currently, the Commissioner of Administration evaluates and presents those requests to the Bond Commission.

Democrats in the House immediately lined up to speak in opposition, pointing out the real intentions behind the bill.

“This is adding an additional step to capital outlay,” Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) protested. “Ways & Means and Revenue & Fisc could usurp the will of this body! And what I’ve seen come out of Way & Means lately does not reflect the will of my district.”

“This is taking power away from the governor to decide what goes to Bond Commission, and giving it all to the Speaker, since he decides who’s on Ways & Means,” Rep Robby Carter (D-Amite) complained. “This is taking all the power from the governor and giving it to the Speaker and the majority party!”

“How will Ways & Means have time to this extra work?” Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill (D-Dry Creek) asked. “It seems they can’t do what they’re supposed to do now.”

“This is obstruction, and adding more bureaucracy,” state Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin). “This House is dysfunctional – we can’t even pass gas!”

But they narrowly passed this bill, 53-42.

Several more “reforms” to the capitol outlay process passed as well – each with amendments added to ensure Ways & Means and Revenue & Fisc would have the ultimate say.

Rep. Ted James then brought his bill to establish a rebate program for taxpayers willing to donate money to help fund GO Grants – a chronically underfunded state program to assist financially needy college students.

Numerous members of the Legislative Black Caucus spoke in support of the bill, but several of the hardline Republicans expressed reservations.

Rep. Rick Edmonds (R- Baton Rouge) worried that the money wouldn’t show up for inclusion in the Appropriations committee’s oversight of the budget. Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) worried aloud that this might become a “boondoggle like the solar tax credit program.”

James advised that the rebates are capped at $5-million annually, and Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) reminded the opposition that the concept continues the spirit of school vouchers and a tax rebate program that allows donations to support those.

Rep. Mark Abraham (R-Lake Charles) was adamant that donors should not be eligible for the rebate unless they had a tax liability to offset it, and said, essentially, that Jackson had her facts wrong.

That fanned some of the smoldering coals from the special session back into flames, with Jackson demanding an apology from Abraham. He replied, “I can’t apologize for being right,” which prompted a hubbub of complaints on the House floor.

James jumped in, saying, “Members, can we all calm down? There a lot of tension here. It’s a new session, and we have a lot of work to do.”

James’ HB 175 was approved, 68-23.

But there’s still smoke rising.

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