Opening Day 2019

On the first day of the last regularly-scheduled legislative session of this term, it was clear that – despite the veneer of good sportsmanship – there’s still a lot of bad blood among the players, leftover from previous games that were decided only after numerous extra innings.

For one thing, House Speaker Taylor Barras (R-New Iberia) invited Congressman Ralph Abraham to sit on the House dais – along with the traditional gathering of statewide elected officials. Abraham is the only federally-elected official in recent memory to attend and take such a position – seated prominently nearer the Speaker than was the lieutenant governor – on opening day.

After introducing the congressman to today’s joint legislative session, Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego) asked, tongue-in-cheek, “He’s here for some on-the-job training?” (Abraham is an announced candidate seeking to wrest the governorship from John Bel Edwards this fall. The other announced Republican challenger, industrialist Eddie Rispone, was also in attendance, seated in the public gallery.)

Despite the early pennant-waving, more than a few commented on their hope this will be the final contest of this series.

Senate President John Alario (L) and House Speaker Taylor Barras (R)

Senate President Alario directly addressed House Speaker Taylor Barras, as they stood together at the front of the House, awaiting the governor’s arrival.

“On a personal note, in a way I hope this is our last joint session – but you never know,” Alario said, with a rueful grin. “I want to thank you for the cooperation that you’ve shown to me and the members of the Senate through our time together – and through the many trips to the principal’s office you and I have made together to get chewed out together.”

But neither of the duo of team managers, nor their players, were getting chewed out in this State of the State speech.

“I am happy and honored to join you for the start of what I hope to be our only legislative session this year,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said, but only heard back a sprinkling of chuckles. “This is going to be a very different speech than you are used to me delivering the opening day of session because the budget crisis that for years held Louisiana hostage is over. What was once a $2 billion budget deficit is now a surplus that will lay a foundation for us to continue to move the state forward.”

The governor paused there, for expected applause. When it did not materialize, he employed some none-too-thinly-veiled sarcasm.

“Now, I know we’re not used to hearing the word ‘surplus’ around here very often, but I have checked with economists and it turns out surpluses are actually better than deficits,” he said, with a big grin, earning single shouts of laughter from several of the Democrats in the chamber. “And unlike in the past, all we have to do is recognize the revenue right in front of us. Then we can get to work on making real progress for our state.”

For those who have missed the latest…let’s call it the “bat-measuring contest” going on between House Republican leadership and the administration, House Speaker Taylor Barras, in his role as one of four members of the Revenue Estimating Committee, has steadfastly refused to vote “yes” to acknowledge increased state revenue for the current fiscal year and next. By law, any revisions to the official forecast must receive unanimous votes.

In November, Barras sent his “man-behind-the-curtain” – Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry – as proxy to vote no. Barras himself voted no at REC meetings in December, January, and February. The state’s economists are recommending a $122-million uptick for the current fiscal year, and a $90-million increase in revenue projections for the budget year that begins July 1.

The Revenue Estimating Conference meets again this Wednesday morning, April 10.

Republicans in the House and Senate have filed bills indicating they still think the Governor is crowding the plate, and the GOP hardliners are aiming pitches to brush him back – if not strike him out.

State Sen. Barrow Peacock (R- Bossier City) has a bill to phase the “temporary” (to June 30, 2025) forty-five one hundredths of a penny of sales tax – the hard-fought compromise from last year that finally gave the state a semblance of fiscal stability – out of the state general fund and into the Transportation Trust Fund.

State Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) has SB 171, updating and expanding the legislature’s demands for reports from the administration and its agencies forward – to July 2025.

The hardline Republicans in the House are trying to dismantle and discredit the success of the governor’s 2016 Medicaid expansion, with bills to “reform” the Medicaid hospital payment plans, limit Medicaid paid behavioral health services to 12 hours, and allow the Legislative Auditor access to individuals’ tax records for the purpose of “auditing” Medicaid eligibility.

House GOP Caucus chair Lance Harris speaks with Sen. Pres. John Alario, April 8, 2019

Despite overt indications that a number of the red team members would like to see a trade made in clubhouse management during the off-season this fall, the Governor still took the time to lay out his program for getting Louisiana into the playoffs, even the World Series.

It includes raising the salary cap – for teachers and others.

“For the last year, you have heard me say that giving our teachers a pay raise is my number one priority. This is well deserved and long overdue,” he exhorted. “I want to bring our teacher pay up to speed with other southern regional states starting with a $1,000 pay raise this year. This would be the first step in a multi-year process…because our teachers deserve more.

Edwards got a respectable round of applause for this, and actually seemed to get more and better audience reaction overall from his next proposal for improved pay.

“For three years now, I have asked you to support an increase in the minimum wage in this state, and pass equal pay legislation. And every year that goes by without action, we are falling further and further behind,” Edwards told lawmakers, shaking his head sadly.

“While we refuse to act, our neighbors in Arkansas have raised their minimum wage three times, most recently with an $11 an hour ballot initiative that passed with 68 percent of the vote. I believe it’s time to look outside the walls of this building and let the people of Louisiana decide if raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do.

“So I ask you today to support a constitutional amendment to let the people of our great state use their voices – and their votes – to determine if we should join the other 44 states that have enacted a minimum wage.”

That proposed constitutional amendment is a bill filed in the Senate by Troy Carter (D-New Orleans), but simply referring a House bill on minimum wage to committee for hearing sparked some furor not long after the Governor concluded his address and retired from the House.

State senators mingle with House members prior to joint session on opening day.

HB 422, filed by Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans) would override previously enacted state preemption, prohibiting local governments from setting their own minimum wage. Since the bill pertains to local government, it would normally be referred to the House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee for its initial hearing. Certain House Republicans (none of whom, as one reporter noted on Twitter, had applauded the governor’s minimum wage remarks) voiced objections to that, urging its referral to the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee instead. (Based on the composition of the Labor committee and its previous votes on any minimum wage or equal pay bills, HB 422 bill is guaranteed a swift death there.) Debate ensued, and a vote on the referral was quickly called. 64 members – a bare quorum of the 105-member House – voted, and sent the measure to Labor, 37-27.

So it begins.