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Halftime Report

“It’s not a matter of being ‘for’ or ‘against’. It’s the system we have. We have to keep it.” — Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne

We’re just past the halfway point of the regular session, with 43 of the 85 days complete. Only three of the nearly 1500 bills filed have made it to the governor’s desk. The partisan divides seem deeper than ever, and each chamber is complaining about the other’s work ethic. The Senate seems to be on track toward early adjournment, in accord with the governor’s wish for a swifter start for another special session, while the House is giving increasing indications that they’re not inclined to rush toward conclusion.

The full Senate has managed to debate and vote on several House bills, but the full House isn’t scheduled to debate the first of Senate-originated measures until Thursday.

Senate Finance chairman Eric LaFleur has indicated he’s inclined to run out the clock, by sitting on the House-passed budget bill to help force a do-over in a special session, although Republican members of his committee said Sunday that they fear that would leave the state budgetless, in the face of House intractability.

Senate President John Alario continues to focus on clock-management, urging the upper chamber to keep up their pace in accord with the plan to end the regular session by mid-May. However, as reported by the Times Picayune’s (nola.com) Julia O’Donoghue, House Speaker Taylor Barras is now backing further away from the early adjournment plan, saying “he thought a special session probably would occur, but mostly because the governor wants to call one. But he didn’t think the Senate was necessarily moving fast enough to start that special session in the middle of May.”

And for the past two days, the full House has halted their floor debates, adjourning right around 5 p.m.
None of this should come as any surprise to Bayou Brief readers, since we predicted – even before the regular session started – that this was part of the House leadership’s playbook.

Bills that rollback provisions of last year’s criminal justice reforms continue to advance, as lawmakers succumb to pressure from district attorneys and judges, who have had second thoughts about shortening probation and parole, even as deeper budget cuts tighten the fiscal noose on the Department of Corrections. Undoubtedly many of them also fear next year’s voters in state elections will look askance at the lightening of penalties for non-violent violations of “law and order”.

Despite the steady drop in the oil and gas industry’s contributions to Louisiana’s revenue streams over the past several years, with the downturn in prices, drilling activity and fossil fuel-related jobs, industry desires continue to dominate lawmakers – especially when legislators can be drawn offside by bills baited with the boogeymen of “terrorists”.

One such measure is HB 727, which would designate pipelines as “critical infrastructure”, and prohibit trespassing on pipeline routes, calling it “unauthorized entry” and making it a criminal offense. The official reason given is fear of “domestic terrorists”.

“This was influenced by what happened at Standing Rock in North Dakota,” acknowledged the bill’s primary author, Rep. Major Thibaut (D-New Roads), effectively admitting the purpose is to quash protests over the Bayou Bridge pipeline, now under construction across 163 miles of south Louisiana. Thibaut was accompanied by the general counsel for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association

“I am one of the property owners forced to surrender right-of-way for this pipeline,” Pat Trahan of Lafayette Parish told a Senate committee Tuesday. “Not one of the vehicles currently working on the pipeline on my property has a Louisiana license plate. They start work before 7 a.m., and my neighbors call the police on us for the disturbance. Meanwhile, I allow protesters to come onto my property, and now – today, in fact – the pipeline people are trying to have the police arrest them, even though I have given them permission to be there.”

Despite more than a dozen testifying in opposition to the bill – including the director of the Loyola Law Clinic, who called the bill “over broad” and cautioned it will produce “considerable exposure to the state through challenges to its constitutionality” – the committee advanced the House-approved measure to the full Senate.

Flagging plays by raising questions of constitutionality continues to do little to dissuade Louisiana lawmakers from advancing bills – especially those that concern abortion – so, lawmakers have turned to the abortion restriction playbook in an effort to put some points on the scoreboard. SB 181, a ban on all abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, was approved by the full Senate, 31-3 on Tuesday.

There was a nod to the constitutionality question – or more precisely, to the cost of the inevitable court battles over the constitutionality question – in the form of an amendment added by Sen. Danny Martiny (R- Metairie).

“This amendment says the 15-week ban will only go into effect after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rules on Mississippi’s 15-week ban,” Martiny explained.

The bill’s author, Sen. John Milkovich (D-Shreveport) objected.

“We need to put this into effect right now. It will save some babies!” insisted Milkovich, who has developed a reputation for petulance among his fellow senators. “And even if it saves only one baby from being killed by the brutal torture of abortion, the cost of going to court will be worth it!”

The amendment was adopted, and the measure heads now to the House.

No halftime report would be complete without looking at the star players, and thus far, the quarterback of querulousness has to be Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville). The retired sheriff’s deputy is certainly confident at calling out the play numbers, even when those numbers don’t add up to scoring as he’d expected.

“It’s simple math,” Bacala said Tuesday in House Appropriations, as he tried to argue that his team’s budget scheme really didn’t mean a loss for healthcare, despite what the scoreboard said. “We budgeted $100-million for an LDH program last year, and they only spent $80-million. So when we budget $90-million for that this year, it’s not really a cut at all!”

“Could you go over that again?” asked committee chairman Cameron Henry.

“Look, LDH had a $13.6-billion budget last year, but the real number we need to look at is $13-billion. If we continue at the current rate we are today, appropriating $12-billion gives you 11 months of operating cash,” he said during the House Appropriations committee meeting Tuesday. “You can continue all services at their current levels for 11 months, so you don’t need to send out letters telling nursing home residents they have 90 days to find another place to live.”

“That is not accurate,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne informed him. “It is not 11 months – it’s not enough to even get through six months, because you did not fund long-term care at all. And you did not fund the public-private hospital partners anywhere close to what is contractually required.”

“I just think we have to decide if we’re for the public-private partner system or not,” Bacala said., going off on that tangent.

“It’s not a matter of being ‘for’ or ‘against’. It’s the system we have,” Dardenne responded.

“But if it’s the wrong thing, should we keep it?” Bacala asked.

“We have to keep it,” Dardenne told him. “We cannot recreate the Charity Hospital system, nor can we do without public hospitals at all.

“I just don’t like that we keep being told we can’t change it,” Bacala replied.

That’s a fair summary at this point. They’re playing the game, but nobody likes it.

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