It’s Time

Stating unequivocally that “the Senate budget proposal does not reflect the priorities of our state,” Governor John Bel Edwards announced the regular legislative session will end this Friday, and that he’s issuing the call for the next special session to convene at 4 p.m., on Tuesday, May 22. “Both the House and Senate have now validated what we’ve been saying all along – you cannot fashion a budget that adequately funds our priorities without maintaining a portion of the revenue that is expiring,” the governor said during a Monday afternoon press conference. “I have no plans to allow either of those budget documents” (meaning neither the House version nor the Senate version) “to control government in the next fiscal year.” Since Senate Finance amended the House-passed budget bill last Friday, a strange disconnect has manifested in the messaging from some Republican House members, doubling down on criticism of the administration, rather than responding to what senators intended with their changes, i.e., a duel-inducing slap in the face to the House. For example, Rep. Nancy Landry (R-Lafayette) tweeted: “Senate Finance committee passed their version of the budget Friday FULLY FUNDING nursing homes. As we said all along, no hospitals will be closed and no nursing home residents will be evicted. #ShameOnJBE for his scare tactics.” It’s as though she is saying, “See? We told you the Senate would fix it,” meanwhile totally ignoring that in order to fully fund health care, the Senate had to cut every other state department by 24%. The governor said, “The Senate budget does not fix the problem – the dropoff in revenue that prevents adequately funding the priorities of our state. But those letters went out because of prolonged inaction by the House, followed by their passing a budget that expressly cut those programs by reducing eligibility.” Edwards did commend Senate Finance for its resolution – and Sen. Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville), its author – that acknowledges the $650-million revenue deficit and makes suggestions for filling that hole. All of those – renewing a portion of the fifth sales tax penny, cleaning the remaining sales tax pennies, and making the “haircuts” to credits and rebates permanent – are included in the special session call. “The call has options that have been seen before,” the governor said. “These ideas are not new, and they don’t improve with age — not like a good wine.” Included are options to address income tax brackets, sales tax on services, and corporate tax incentives and rebates. Not included is any legislation dealing with gaming, although reporters asked the governor about a bill to legalize sports betting, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down Monday, striking down a federal ban on such activity. “I’m not inclined to put sports betting in, because it would require parish-by-parish referenda, and wouldn’t really generate any revenue in the next fiscal year,” Edwards said. “The issue could further complicate this special session.” The call also does not include permission to file bills for calling a constitutional convention, despite an 11th-hour letter from 51 House members requesting that be included. It should be noted, however, that both Rep. Neil Abramson’s (D-New Orleans) perennial bill calling for a constitutional convention, and Rep. Franklin Foil’s (R-Baton Rouge) study resolution on whether such a convention is needed, died on the House floor last week. The rest of this week will be frenetic, then, as both chambers push to finalize the several hundred bills remaining on their agendas, and come to concurrence on the tweaks each has made to the other’s legislation. The full Senate is taking up the budget bill Tuesday, and it’s highly unlikely any ensuing compromise will be reached between their version and the House stance. The dissension between political parties and the two chambers, exacerbated by simple weariness of each other and the process, will be on full display. And yet… Monday afternoon, there came a special moment, when Louisiana’s lawmakers embodied the nobility of the democratic process. They chose to move past this state’s sordid history of institutionalized racism, as they agreed to overturn a 138-year-old provision that – to this day – perpetuates unequal treatment under the law: Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury rule. The law came out of the post-Reconstruction era, the same time period that created the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine of segregation. It was made part of the state constitution in 1898, the drafters of which said unequivocally that “Our mission was to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent that it could be legally and constitutionally done.” “This is truly historical legislation,” said Rep. Sherman Mack (R-Albany), as he brought Sen J.P. Morrell’s (D-New Orleans) SB 243 to the full House for consideration. “Louisiana only requires ten of twelve jurors to agree on felony convictions, up to and including taking away a person’s freedom for the rest of their life. Forty-eight other states and the federal court system require unanimous juries. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s time Louisiana got it. “Our state enacted this in the late 1800s. Why? You know the answer. Opponents – many DAs – argue that without this rule, it will be too hard to get convictions. Yet the rest of the country does it. It is time.” Mack invited Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) to join him in urging passage of the bill. James said, “We’re told we cannot recreate history, but we can erase it for the future and right this 138-year-old wrong. Let’s make the right decision.” With no questions and no further discussion, Mack gave his closing, saying simply, “It’s time. Do the right thing.” As a proposed constitutional amendment, it needed 70 votes to pass, and seemed everyone was holding their breath as the buttons were pushed to vote yea or nay. The tote board lit up rapidly, and the Speaker announced, “Close the machines. 82 yeas, and 15 nays, and the bill passes.” Cheers went up – with the Black Caucus members high-fiving and hugging their nearest neighbors—black and white. This fall, it will be up to Louisiana’s voters. Will we perpetuate the prejudices of our forbears by saying no, or will we choose to embrace equality under the law, by truly requiring prosecutors to make their cases “beyond a reasonable doubt”? It’s time, Louisiana.