Capitol Views:Regular session convenes, first campaign steps taken

    After three years of pushing for tax increases and permanent revenue solutions, and settling for temporary fixes approved by the Legislature, Gov. John Bel Edwards addressed lawmakers this afternoon during the final regular session of the term and vowed, “You won’t hear me talk about a fiscal cliff.”

    Edwards’ vow—paired with his prediction that 2019 could be the first year of the term to host a regular session without an accompanying special session—drew an enthusiastic reaction from the House and Senate. It was a clear sign that neither the administration nor lawmakers are eager to repeat the down-to-the-wire, high-tension sessions that have marked the past three years.

    “This is going to be a very different speech than you are used to me delivering the opening day of session because the budget crisis that for years held Louisiana hostage is over,” Edwards said. “What was once a $2 billion budget deficit is now a surplus that will lay a foundation for us to continue to move the state forward.”

    He added, “Funding for higher education is stabilized. TOPS is fully funded. And health care services aren’t on the chopping block.”

    Since it’s an odd-numbered year, finances will define this fiscal-session, particularly those tied to the annual operating budget. The Revenue Estimating Conference, which meets Wednesday, has yet to identify how much money the state has available to spend. In turn, the governor has been unable to present an executive budget proposal, and lawmakers are using so-called placeholder bills to cobble together and spending plan.

    Several tax bills are on tap as well, but with re-election bids around the corner for Edwards and much of the Legislature, substantive alterations aren’t expected, based on historical patterns and the predictions of legislators, prognosticators and editorial writers. Measures to boost the gas tax, rework the state sales tax structure and change the industrial tax exemption programs will take up a lot of oxygen during the two-month session, but policy accomplishments will still be difficult to come by.

    Then there are the non-tax issues on the regular session agenda. “For the last year, you have heard me say that giving our teachers a pay raise is my number one priority,” Edwards said, touching on a topic that appears to have widespread support. “This is well deserved and long overdue.”

    For Edwards, a Democrat, it’s a significant campaign promise—and his opponents didn’t let the moment pass without weighing in on a variety of matters. Congressman Ralph Abraham and representatives from the Republican Governors Association were commenting on the session before Edwards ever spoke. Abraham and fellow GOP challenger Eddie Rispone, a businessman from Baton Rouge, were in attendance for today’s opening remarks on the House floor. “He’s here for some on-the-job training,” said Senate President John Alario, a Westwego Republican, upon seeing Abraham.   

    The governor likewise promised to, once again, pursue a higher minimum wage and equal pay provisions.

    Legislators are pushing bills to revamp habitual offender laws, combat human trafficking, address abortion regulations, fight the opioid epidemic, and better promote veteran-owned businesses. They also proposed legislation to establish guidelines for self-driving vehicles, pave the way for sports betting, increase payments to sheriffs for housing inmates, review medical marijuana policies, hike salaries for some public officials, loosen professional wrestling oversight, raise the age for foster care services, enhance juvenile detention rules and create an animal abuser registry, to name a few issues.

    As of this afternoon, 583 bills have been introduced in the House and 221 have been introduced in the Senate.

    Jeremy Alford will publish Capitol Views each afternoon on Daily Report PM through the end of the legislative session. The report is also available to subscribers at LaPolitics.com.

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