Opening Day Signs and Portents

Session begins with a broken gavel and the state’s first positive test in the predicted COVID-19 pandemic

The 2020 regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature convened with all the usual pomp: gavels banging, calling the senators and representatives to order, solemn stating of the purpose for meeting, and even more solemn intoning of prayers to the Almighty to guide their work. The flag was pledged to, presented militarily, and pledged to again, accompanied by more prayers and more polite formalities.

It remains to be seen whether the courtesies are more than merely a required veneer of civility, or whether this opening ceremonial presentation of the colors devolves from being symbolic of unity of purpose into more red versus blue, lawmakers versus governor, Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown chicanery.

Both the new chamber chieftains, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, have been promising “less friction” when queried about their approach to leadership. Yet those pledges are directed almost exclusively at greasing the wheels of cooperation between the House and Senate, promoting teamwork and coordination within the legislative branch, rather than attempting to compromise with the head of the executive branch, Gov. John Bel Edwards.

In fact, it appears the hostilities initiated by the Republican-dominated legislature toward the Democratic governor have little hope of abatement. One need look only to the 2nd annual “Refusal of the Forecast” to verify that entrenchment along the scorched earth of previous battle lines continues.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder laughs as Senate President Page Cortez holds up the broken pieces of the Speaker’s antique gavel.

Perhaps it was an omen when new Senate President Page Cortez picked up the antique oversized House Speaker’s gavel to call the joint session to order, and broke the hammer’s handle.

In his session opening address to the full Legislature, Edwards expressed optimism while offering a figurative handshake across the table of partisan division.

“Today is not only the start of a new Regular Session. It’s the beginning of a new chapter for Louisiana,” he began. “For myself, I will continue to put Louisiana first and advance priorities that are important to the people of this state. My pledge to you is that I am ready to work with all of you, in good faith, to set aside partisan division and continue to move Louisiana forward.”

The Democratic governor didn’t hesitate to use words well-loved by the Republicans who’ve attempted to blockade him for the last four years, saying “We have the opportunity to improve the lives of Louisiana working families like never before,” and then saying, “I am referring to the budget I proposed based on the most conservative estimate of the Revenue Estimating Conference.”

Neither did Edwards shy away from from pointing out the new leadership’s intransigence over the Revenue Forecast could prevent them from getting their work done in the time allotted, just as their predecessors failed to complete their “one job” more than once during the past four years.

“Until the REC adopts an official forecast, these numbers are merely a proposal. That is why I am urging the REC to adopt a forecast sooner rather than later so that we have as much time as possible this session to develop a responsible budget using real numbers based on the recommendation of our expert economists rather than on hypotheticals.”

The budget bill already being vetted by the House Appropriations Committee, HB 105 – drafted by that committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerome Zeringue (R-Houma) – removed $103-million from the budget proposal submitted by the Governor.

The governor then spoke of the legislation he wants to see pass, generating some applause for raising teacher pay again, with a target of reaching the Southern regional average within this four-year term. He got another smattering of applause when saying he supports a bill setting the state minimum wage at nine dollars next January first, then going up to ten dollars six months later.

Joint Session of Louisiana Legislature standing for presentation of the colors.

The majority of the majority, Republican lawmakers, sat with their arms folded throughout Edwards’ address, only rising to their feet and politely clapping hands when the Governor and First Lady were leaving the House chamber.

Perhaps one way to gauge the hostility level would be looking through the more than 1100 prefiled bills. Several are repeats of previously tried-and-failed strategies to enlarge legislative powers while curbing the authority of the governor. Other proposals can be seen as actual declarations of partisan animus, while other bills would overturn the constitutionally-enacted will of the people of this state.

On the House side, Rep. Rick Edmonds (R-Baton Rouge) – a returning member of the Appropriations Committee, has HB 118. With it he is trying the scheme previous Speaker Taylor Barras repeatedly attempted and failed-to-pass: that is, limiting state appropriations to 98% of the revenue forecast.

Three House members want to change how the state expenditure limit is calculated. The present method, based on Louisiana income growth as computed within the U.S. Consumer Index, is spelled out in the state constitution. HB 464 by “Beau” Beaullieu (R-New Iberia), who won the seat vacated by term-limited Taylor Barras, would let the legislature pick a number, not to exceed 5% growth. Beryl Amedee (R-Houma) and Blake Miguez (R-Erath) would let the legislature choose a number, limited to 6%. Amedee would want that number averaged with the percentage of state population growth, as well.

HB 271 by Rep. Phillip Devillier (R-Eunice) would restrict requesting and granting lines of credit for state projects.

On the Senate side, there are bills to start shifting the proceeds from the “temporary” sales tax into the Transportation Trust Fund (SB 89 by Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City), as well as SB 285 by Patrick McMath (R-Covington), which would alter the voter-approved allocations of money from the Transportation Trust Fund.

Former Rep. and Appropriations chair, now Sen. Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) has SB 132. It would require the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to vote on any and all state contracts valued at $25-million or more. It adds a step to the process, thus enlarging bureaucracy, while taking authority away from the executive branch’s Division of Administration to give it to the legislative branch.

Sen. Bodi White (R-Central) has a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the governor’s changes to ITEP (SB 187). White is also lead author on SB 356, to tweak the Revenue Estimating Conference meeting dates, language, and rules.

He’s also got a bill that’s decidedly reminiscent of the Jindal administration’s money manipulations. SB 189 would launder the surplus, sending it to the funds designated by the constitution, but then moving the money out into other funds to use it as the legislature sees fit.

These bills, except for the Constitutional Amendments, could still be vetoed by the governor if and after they pass. But the governor has no say-so whatsoever on legislative resolutions. Thus far there are three House Concurrent Resolutions filed that would attempt to thwart the governor’s authority: HCR 4, to change ITEP rules, HCR 6 to create the Joint Medicaid Oversight Committee, and HCR 8 to reduce the expenditure limit for the upcoming fiscal year.

This is my 40th legislative session in 21 years. I suppose you can say I read the session omens by reading bills and the body language of lawmakers, and by feeling for the moods swirling through the air within the Capitol’s chambers, committee rooms and hallways. Legislative leaders laughed somewhat abashedly over the breaking of the gavel, yet I saw it as a concerning sign, especially when, on the first day of the session, the Governor announces the first Louisiana patient has tested positive for corona virus. Meanwhile the House attempts to thwart the governor by working on their own version of the budget– one that strips $103 million from state health programs. It all seems a harbinger of bad juju to come.