Alford: Will there be fireworks this legislative session?

I wanted a straight answer on the politics that have been fermenting for the regular session of the Legislature that convenes Monday, April 8. So I called Senate Natural Resources Chairman Norby Chabert of Terrebonne Parish. A former Democrat turned Republican and the third member of his immediate family to serve in the Louisiana Senate, Chabert knows politics, from managing campaigns and precinct-level turnout to policy angles and leveraging gavels.

“What are the fireworks gonna be like?” I asked. “Will there even be fireworks?”

He laughed, but then sighed because most people don’t expect much controversy or even a spark of emotion from the coming session—primarily because it falls just a few months before re-election bids.

The legislators want to look good for the voters. That’s the historical model for a year like 2019. In other words, the final year of a legislative term is typically non-confrontational, somewhat guarded by the elected members and lacking in substantive accomplishments.

“It won’t quite be the Fourth of July,” Chabert said flatly, “but it’ll definitely be New Year’s Eve.”

This legislative term, to be sure, has been radically different from those of modern note. In 2016, for example, this current crop of lawmakers spent more time in session than any of their peers dating back to 1812, and each annual regular session thus far has been accompanied by one or more special sessions.

Different indeed.

What if this final regular session is as equally different? Where can the fireworks be best viewed? For starters, the main budget bill and Louisiana’s revenue challenges, in general, will continue to dominate serious conversations. So the potential for disaster begins there.

The required executive budget proposal hasn’t been drafted yet because of a revenue panel’s inability to recognize a pot of dollars that the state would, in turn, be able to spend. That means, for the first time that I can recall in two decades, a regular session will convene without the introduction of HB 1, the annual operating budget. Legislators have already found a workaround, via what amounts to skeleton bills, but the otherwise avoidable hiccup should be an unmistakable signal that this final year of the current term may be as different as 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Then there are the new faces and the old faces who want new jobs. Those personalities, in particular, could make the session stickier than usual by adding noise and fraying nerves. There will be 10 new state representatives serving in their first session come April 8. It’s difficult to believe so many newbies took office since the term’s seventh special session adjourned in June 2018, but turnover has come to define this term of state government. Plus, there’s no guarantee that these newcomers will arrive with the go-along-get-along philosophy of some of their predecessors.

Moreover, there are 16 senators and 31 representatives who are term-limited, like Chabert. The conventional wisdom often suggests that these exiting lawmakers are primed to perform since they have nothing left to lose and they’re facing their collective swan song. Some term-limited lawmakers, again, like Chabert, insist they’ll approach this regular session like those that came before.

Then again, the Senate isn’t where the action is if you’re watching for loose cannons. Instead keep an eye on House members who are aiming for Senate seats, or other elected jobs, and are looking for ways to stand out. That kind of external ambition, in concert with the 10 new members serving in their first session, could be enough to help buck a small part of the lame-duck stylings we’re used to seeing at a term’s end.  

On the surface, however, expectations are low for the regular session. Lawmakers didn’t show their usual lust for pre-filing bills, which limits the playing field in terms of policy potential. But odd-numbered years are different because lawmakers may only introduce five general subject matter bills. Even-numbered years, by comparison, present opportunities for practically unlimited legislation.

Perhaps there will be a noticeable change for this most recent term-ending regular session. Maybe the new kids on the block will partner with the old-timers to create an entirely new tone. If not, the Legislature’s unique brand of politics will still create fireworks that will be worth watching if you have even a passing interest in politics or government. As Chabert noted, those fireworks won’t be Fourth of July quality, but you’ll be able to hear them and occasionally see them, like on New Year’s Eve.

Now, those firework displays may not prove to be worth the time spent watching them, but no one promises a worthwhile and productive experience—just a loud and occasionally bright-lit show of theatrics and intrigue. This is, after all, the final regular session of a legislative term, just with different personalities and priorities.

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, atLaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.