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Capitol Views: With divisions clear, Edwards predicts ‘difficult work ahead’

Before delivering the prayer that opened the regular session for the lower chamber today, Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, joked that he was considering drawing inspiration from the words of St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. “But we’re not there yet,” Connick said to a sprinkling of laughter.

It was an otherwise lighthearted start to a regular session that’s sure to be tainted in some small way—and possibly larger ways—by the mistrust and acrimony that was kicked up by the failed special session that was adjourned prematurely just one week ago. That’s when the House failed to forge a compromise on how best to address a budget shortfall that was said to be in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Today it’s closer to $700 million, due to an expected revenue bump from federal tax changes.

“I know you haven’t been away for very long, but I hope that in the past week you have had time to rest and refocus on the work that we have ahead of us,” Edwards told a joint meeting of the Legislature this afternoon. “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.”

Since this is an even-numbered year, lawmakers won’t be voting on the same tax bills that were proposed during the recent special session. The regular session will instead host a variety of policy topics and a debate over the state budget, which, if actually passed, will have to be balanced by lawmakers to reflect $700 million in less revenue.

“After the last special session, unfortunately, (an unnamed Dutchtown student is) leaning towards going to Alabama, rather than LSU, because of the uncertainty of his TOPS scholarship,” Edwards told lawmakers. “That’s the kind of story we all should dread. Losing to Alabama in the classroom should feel just as painful as losing to them on the football field.”

The lay of the land in the Capitol will take some time to read properly, but the same basic philosophical divides remain. While Democrats—and some Republicans—are open to increasing certain kinds of taxes, many conservatives remain convinced that the state budget can absorb enough cuts to further shrink the anticipated shortfall that takes hold when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

“If that’s what you truly believe, now is your opportunity,” Edwards said during his opening speech. “To those that say we can cut our way out of this, it’s your time to step up to the plate and make the specific cuts that you insist can be made.”

Freshman Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette, said he’s willing to support cuts in the budget, but like Edwards and others, he’s still waiting to see if a spending document emerges from its originating committee and what it will contain. “I think we have the right people on the Appropriations Committee to do the job they were elected to do,” Coussan said.

To be certain, lawmakers will feel the pressure soon. The governor said he has been working with Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras to end the non-fiscal regular session ahead of schedule, possibly in mid-May, in order to convene the year’s second special fiscal session—“at no additional expense to taxpayers.”

“And no, it will not be easy. I never said that it would be, but I believe it will be necessary,” Edwards said, later adding, “There is no denying that we have some very difficult work ahead of us. In this session, you are also supposed to pass a budget. As I’ve said before, I do not support or consider the budget recommendations I was constitutionally obligated to present back in January as a reasonable option. I’m certain the majority of you don’t either.”

But the budget isn’t the only item on the regular session menu. More than a thousand bills, ranging from gun control measures and constitutional convention calls to fishing license adjustments and equal pay campaigns, will help distract lawmakers from their fiscal charge.

Veteran Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, said he hopes the volume of legislation doesn’t actually serve as a distraction from the larger goal at hand. “I think because were hitting it all early, we’ll be okay,” he said. “But we’ve got to keep up that pace. In my committee, Senate Health and Welfare, we’ll one looking to consider 10 to 12 bills every week.”

Jeremy Alford will publish a daily update throughout the legislative special session on Daily Report PM. Alford reports on Louisiana politics at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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