Amid tension, Louisiana lawmakers back for another session
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Fresh from a failed special session on finances, Louisiana lawmakers are resuming their debates on the unsettled budget mess as well as hot-button proposals on guns, gambling, sexual harassment, and abortion.
The regular legislative session opens at noon, with a decade's worth of state financial troubles again taking much of the focus. Gov. John Bel Edwards is to address the House and Senate an hour after the session's start.
Tensions are simmering as Louisiana lawmakers face an estimated $700 million shortfall when the new budget year begins July 1, caused by the expiration of temporary taxes. Education programs and safety-net health services for the poor and disabled remain most vulnerable to cuts.
Partisan gridlock in the House blocked every tax bill proposed in the two-week special session to close the hole, and lawmakers abruptly ended the session early, unable to break the logjam. The collapse of negotiations provoked anger and frustration that is expected to spill into the regular session, as lawmakers try to determine where they'd like to shave away spending.
"It's almost scary to think of lawmakers tackling any kind of really substantive policy matters in the current environment," said the nonpartisan Council For A Better Louisiana. "Will they be voting on the policies or providing political payback for what did or didn't happen in the special session? As cynical as that sounds, it's a legitimate concern."
Lawmakers have pre-filed more than 1,100 bills on a wide list of subjects.
Proposals would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, restructure the TOPS college tuition program, end Louisiana's use of the death penalty, redesign criminal sentencing laws, expand the state's private school voucher program and change teacher tenure rules.
Among his agenda items, Edwards wants to reduce the list of careers requiring state occupational licenses, add new protections against elderly abuse and prohibit schools from punishing students who owe lunch money.
"No child should have to choose between going hungry and being made to feel less than simply because they cannot afford the price of a school lunch that day," the Democratic governor said in a statement.
Lawmakers in the majority-GOP House and Senate are to consider whether to strengthen laws against hazing, after the recent death of a Louisiana State University student. They'll decide whether to rewrite riverboat casino laws and whether to legalize sports betting. They'll again debate whether to raise Louisiana's minimum wage or restore voting rights for some convicted felons.
Keying in on national debates, lawmakers will decide if they want to enact a uniform sexual harassment prevention policy for all state agencies.
Republicans and Democrats differ in their response to the Florida school shooting that killed 17 people, with Democrats seeking new gun restrictions and GOP lawmakers proposing to allow concealed handguns and armed teachers inside schools. One lawmaker wants students to be able to wear bullet-proof backpacks.
The frustration over finances has heightened calls for a constitutional convention. House Republicans are proposing new cost-sharing requirements for Medicaid patients and tightening of the state spending cap.
The regular session is expected to end ahead of its June 4 deadline.
Edwards, Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras are working on a plan to finish 10 to 20 days early. That would allow for a second special session to be held on taxes, in order to keep the entire budget gap from being closed with cuts.
They've questioned whether a budget proposing deep reductions can even win passage.
"I'm assuming that would be difficult to do, but maybe not impossible," Barras said.