By Jeremy Alford
The Senate Finance Committee started the process Monday morning of wrapping up its deliberations over the state budget by taking sometimes-tearful testimony from the public.
A few who spoke during the committee meeting attended with their wheelchair-bound loved ones, while others represented voices under more serious care far from the confines of the Capitol.
Like other recent versions of Louisiana’s annual spending plan, the cuts-heavy budget approved by the House drew emotional appeals from people who rely on state funding for services for children with severe disabilities and elderly citizens who are completely immobile.
“This makes us look pretty heartless,” said Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, after a few hours of public testimony.
The personal stories, as they usually do, humanized the role of the state budget, which has otherwise been mired in politics this calendar year.
The version sent to the Senate by the House last month reduced health care funding by $432 million, which LaFleur estimated would leave 45,000 individuals with disabilities without critical services — and it’s a cut that would actually equate to a $1.6 billion loss when federal matching dollars are sacrificed.
The possibility of such a change in services made for a tough public hearing.
“I apologize that you have to go through this again,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-New Orleans, with a polite nod to the perennial doom-and-gloom narratives that surface toward the end of each regular session.
“It’s hard, but important to listen to testimony in some cases where people are begging for their lives,” tweeted Greg Hilburn, a reporter for the USA Today network of Louisiana papers who joined other journalists tracking the hearing.
Earlier in the day Hilburn broke the story that the Louisiana’s Department of Health will likely send nursing home eviction notices Thursday to more than 30,000 residents. Last week, Lafayette General Medical Center also sent layoff notices to its employees, noting uncertainty in the budget process.
In the face of such criticism, Republicans in the House are pushing to have their budget bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee.
While leery, and accepting of the fact that hearings may need to be restarted in an approaching special session, leaders in the upper chamber are trying in earnest to forge a seemingly impossible compromise that heeds the broad-based visions that the House put in the budget, takes into account the Senate’s concerns and attempts to avoid the veto pen of the governor.
Some senators are hopeful that amendments will be heard soon and an altered budget will be passed to the full chamber by the end of the week. But those alterations will have to be significant.
“It’s the worst budget I’ve ever seen in the 18 years that I’ve been here,” Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, told LaPolitics in an interview last week.
The budget debate, which remains at a crawl, could likewise influence the ability of lawmakers to adjourn the regular session early so another special session can be convened.
The governor and legislative leaders see the premature adjournment as an avenue to get into a special session so that substantive tax proposals can be considered to address the state’s revenue shortfall for the next fiscal year.
a full-scale riot
By 1866, Louisiana had been devastated by the ravages of the Civil War. Almost 3,000 of the state’s citizens had been killed in the conflict, with bloody battles waged in Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville and the Red River region.
Because occupation by Union troops had suspended the functions of state government, new elections had been held at the conclusion of the war in 1865. Pro-Union “Radical Republicans” split control of the Legislature with conservative Democrats, who were in favor of returning the state to the antebellum status quo.
Lawmakers then became engulfed in a debate over voting rights for both newly freed slaves and former Confederates. Republicans pushed for the enfranchisement of African-Americans while Democrats advocated for the restoration of voting rights for former Confederates. Both sides knew that their particular group was key to them holding political power in the state.
Unable to resolve the matter, then-Gov. James Madison Wells and the Legislature called for a constitutional convention to be held in July of 1866. Because the State Capitol in Baton Rouge had burned during the course of the war, the convention was slated to be held at the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans.
Delegates received numerous death threats in the days leading up to the convention, according to historian Donald Reynolds’ account of the events. Both African-Americans and former Confederates held huge rallies in New Orleans, as rumors of an armed uprising gripped the city.
When the convention was gaveled in on July 30, only 25 delegates were in attendance. Unable to gather a quorum, the convention stood at ease while sergeants-at-arms were dispatched to find the remaining delegates.
Meanwhile, a group of nearly 250 African-Americans were marching up Canal Street, protesting for voting rights and showing their support for the Republicans. A large number of former Confederates were already outside the Mechanics Institute, having spent most of the morning heckling the delegates.
When the two sides met on a corner, a full altercation ensued, with the mob of former Confederates attacking the unarmed African-American protesters. Police soon joined the scrum and shots rang out across Canal Street.
When the smoke cleared, 40 people, including three delegates, were killed. The constitutional convention disbanded, while an outraged Congress used the event to push for the passage of the 14th Amendment. But it would take nearly another 100 years to fully resolve the voting rights issue in Louisiana.
They Said It
“Unfortunately, everything in this building has become difficult.”
—Gov. John Bel Edwards, to members of One Acadiana
“We’ve got some knot-heads down here.”
—Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, on the Legislature