While budget and tax issues will dominate the special session that convened on Monday, the real story may reside in the Louisiana Legislature’s lower chamber.
Due to laws requiring such legislation to start in the state House, the body has traditionally been the jumping-off point for most financial policies.
But as this term passes its midway mark, the bottleneck that exists in the House — fueled partly by ideological bickering and a healthy dose of politics — may be unparalleled in recent legislative history.
“The focus of the media has definitely been on the House,” said Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley. “Representatives have a target on their back and people are expecting the House to deliver. But that’s okay; I’m ready to take up that role. And I’m not the only one.”
The magic number in the House for substantive tax measures is 70 votes, which has proven to be a rather high threshold over the past two years. That may remain the case in this special session.
Capitol insiders contend that, on some key measures like the state sales tax structure, the leadership has only been able to gather 40 votes from Republican legislators. That means the House has some work to do when it comes to reaching across the proverbial aisle.
Already the House has been setting the pace for negotiations, all the while criticizing the governor for not having a solid plan or fielding complaints that they don’t either.
The Senate, which receives House bills following votes from the lower chamber, is used to waiting. But some senators are feeling less like patient politicians and more like sitting ducks.
“Both chambers have kind of grown in our approaches,” said Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, who believes this special session could be different. “We’re all a little bit more seasoned. We’re not so green. No one wants to repeat some of the problems we’ve had in the previous sessions.”
Other lawmakers, like Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, are less optimistic. She doesn’t expect the House to reach the 70-vote threshold for key measures that aren’t attached to Republican authors and core conservative principles.
Regardless, Modnay marked the start of Louisiana’s fifth special session in two years. It will span 17 days and focus in on the state’s $1 billion budget shortfall.
As of Monday morning, 28 bills had been filed for this session from the House and Senate.
John Grisham raised money for governor
Just prior to the festivities at Washington Mardi Gras in January, Gov. John Bel Edwards attended a fundraiser in his honor in Virginia hosted by superstar author John Grisham, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Estimates for the total take that evening are in the six figures.
It’s unclear how Edwards and Grisham hooked up, but they both got their starts as trial attorneys and both were at one time state legislators.
Bills stacking up
The big policy themes for the special session will undoubtedly include taxes and Medicaid.
But the GOP seems to be sending the message that cuts in spending represent one of their biggest priorities.
HB12 and HB15 by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, would create a expenditure cap to offset the state’s GOP-alleged “spending problem.”
It’s notable that these bills are sponsored by the most powerful Republican in the House — and are so far the only two measures filled by the speaker, as of Monday morning.
Meanwhile, two bills by Reps. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, and Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, would exempt several services from the state sales tax structure, while HB19 by House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, adds more taxable items to the list.
Another bill to watch is being sponsored by Reps. Leger and Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, to halve the individual income tax deduction for excess federal itemized personal deductions, starting this calendar year.
Leger is carrying several other important bills for the administration this session, including one that would compress the upper and middle income tax brackets, as well as legislation that would reduce some corporate income tax deductions while making permanent the temporary reductions made in 2015.
He also has a proposal that would make permanent some temporary rebate reductions to payroll incentive programs and make permanent the tax credit for taxes paid in other states.
The Medicaid melee will majorly be handled by Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro. His HB11 would require a Medicaid copayment for non-emergency hospital visits, one of the GOP’s main cost-saving proposals.
McFarland’s HB4 and HB6 would require certain enrollees pay premiums for Medicaid eligibility. Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, and Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, are also pushing bills that create a work requirement for Medicaid eligibility.
There’s likewise some chatter surrounding HB1 by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, which would create an online state spending transparency database, the long-discussed GOP favorite policy also known as the Louisiana Checkbook.
They Said It
“That’s basic economics, though I know some people played frisbee in the quad during Econ 101.”
—U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, discussing revenue proposals with a legislative task force
“Those Asian Carp cooked into Silverfin fish cakes surely won’t reproduce anymore.”
—Dr. Dawn Aubrey of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, on a new partnership with LDWF to address invasive Asian Carp