As Louisiana regular session opens, Edwards seeks 'refocus'
BATON ROUGE (AP) - With tensions still simmering from a failed special session, Gov. John Bel Edwards asked Louisiana's lawmakers to move on Monday as their annual regular session began, rather than get mired in the same standoffs that stalled action on taxes.
"I hope that in the past week you've had time to rest and refocus on the work that we have ahead of us," the Democratic governor told the House and Senate. "And especially I do not want the roadblocks of the special session to hamper us from what's most important - making life better for the people of this great state."
Lawmakers will resume their debates on the unsettled budget mess, the culmination of a decade's worth of state financial troubles, as well as hot-button proposals on guns, gambling and sexual harassment.
An estimated $700 million shortfall looms when the new budget year begins July 1, caused by the expiration of temporary taxes.
Partisan gridlock in the House blocked every tax bill in the special session called by Edwards to close the hole. Anger and frustration is expected to spill into the regular session, as lawmakers try to determine where they'll shave away spending. The Legislature can't consider taxes.
Education programs and safety net health services remain most vulnerable to cuts.
"Many of you will find that it's much harder than it seems because when you cut funding, you cut services that many people in this state rely upon," Edwards said. He told GOP lawmakers: "To those that say we can cut our way out of this, it's your time to step up to the plate."
Beyond finances, lawmakers have pre-filed more than 1,100 bills.
Proposals would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, restructure the TOPS college tuition program, end Louisiana's use of the death penalty, loosen riverboat casino and video poker laws and legalize sports betting. House Republicans are proposing cost-sharing requirements for Medicaid patients and a tighter state spending cap.
Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, expects lawmakers to steer beyond the special session's disagreements.
"The last session is over. I think everyone here has thick skin, and we're ready to put the people's business over politics. We better," he said.
But fallout continued Monday. Rep. Kenny Havard, a St. Francisville Republican, resigned as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, saying that would give him more freedom to break from House and party leadership to "vote my conscience."
Among his agenda items, Edwards wants to reduce the list of careers requiring occupational licenses, add new protections against elderly abuse, rewrite teacher tenure laws and prohibit schools from punishing students who owe lunch money. He'll again push to boost Louisiana's minimum wage and enact an equal pay law, proposals that have repeatedly failed.
Lawmakers in the majority-GOP House and Senate will consider whether to strengthen laws against hazing after the death of an LSU student, and if they want to enact a uniform sexual harassment prevention policy for 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.
Edwards dodged taking a position on guns. He referenced the "national conversation" and urged lawmakers to "drown out the political noise" and bring in varied voices for the debate.
"Our priority is public safety for our children, and I know that we can have a constructive dialogue here in Louisiana," the governor said.
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 in mid-May, to hold another special session on taxes and keep the entire budget gap from being closed with cuts.
But House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican, said he'll work to send a spending plan to the governor with the reductions required.
"I think it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars for us to again be up here and not pass a budget," Henry said.