Session facing dismal agenda

Published 5:27 am Saturday, April 15, 2023

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Any thoughts that Louisiana legislators would have a smooth session that opened Monday with many surplus millions to spend on worthwhile causes appears to be simply wishful thinking.


Some lawmakers don’t even want to raise the state spending limit to fund teacher pay raises, transportation projects and overdue maintenance work at colleges and universities.


Republicans have firm control of the Legislature. The House now has 71 GOP members, 32 Democrats, and 2 independents and the Senate has 27 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Both chambers have the two-thirds votes needed to pass taxes, override vetoes, and raise the spending limit.


OK, let’s start with those teacher pay raises. Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to give teachers a $2,000 annual increase, support workers $1,000, and teachers another $1,000 and support workers another $500 if more extra revenues are forecast.


“You should fund your critical priorities when you can because you’re damn sure not going to do it when you can’t,” Edwards said during an interview with The Advocate.


Legislators have a $726 million surplus from last year, another $880 million surplus or more expected in the current fiscal year. However, the spending cap says they can spend only $460 million this year and $500 million in the next fiscal year’s budget.


It comes as no surprise that some Republican leaders say they are worried about spending money this year that won’t be available in the future. They mention the $418 million that will disappear when a 0.45% sales tax passed in 2018 goes off the books in 2025. Some vehicle sales taxes are also coming out of the state general fund for transportation projects.


Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, is one of the skeptical GOP leaders. The Advocate reported that he told a forum he would have to “see whether we need” to raise the spending limit.  Other skeptics are Rep. Jack McFarland,  R-Winnfield, chairman of the House Conservative Caucus, Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, chairman of the House Republican Caucus, and Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.


White and Zeringue have strong control over state spending because of the committees they chair. Zeringue indicated he wants to be sure the $3,500 that lawmakers have given teachers over the past five years translates into accountability on the part of teachers that benefits kids.


Zeringue isn’t going to find that out during this session, which means he may vote for less money or not vote for any additional teacher pay increases. Teachers actually want more than even Edwards wants to give them, so you can just imagine how they might feel about Zeringue’s comments.


Among GOP leaders, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, makes more sense than the others who are in control. He supports the teacher pay raises and is opposed to putting surplus money into savings accounts to be spent later rather than spending it during this session.


Republican and Democratic legislators made some progressive moves in criminal justice reform in 2017, but conservative GOP lawmakers want to junk some of those reforms.  Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna who heads the House criminal justice committee and who supported those reforms, said, “Election season is when people try to out-tough-on-crime each other.”


Schexnayder, for example, in a text message said he believes violent crime is “crippling” Louisiana. Ultra-conservative Republican conservatives are also in his camp.


The Legislature now has two conservative groups. McFarland’s House Conservative Caucus has 42 members and some of them must not be conservative enough. There is a newly created Freedom Caucus made up of ultra-conservative Republicans. It is patterned after the far-right Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House.


Five members of that Freedom Caucus are Reps. Alan Seabaugh of Shreveport, Larry Frieman of Abita Springs, Beryl Amedee of Gray, Kathy Edmonston of Gonzales, and  Danny McCormick of Oil City.


If all of that isn’t enough controversy, property insurance will be tough because legislation that has been filed would benefit both insurance companies and their policyholders who think companies already have too much authority.


Other controversial issues that will create heated debate are proposed legislative pay increases, adding exceptions to the anti-abortion law, legalizing marijuana, eliminating the state income tax with higher property and new sales taxes, ending the death penalty, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women and cultural issues like restricting books in libraries and dealing with transgender matters.


Looking at that list, you can’t help but wonder if there is anything left on which legislators can agree.