Door closing on Legislature
If you believe political trends from recent history routinely repeat themselves, then what we’ve seen from this current crop of state legislators may be all we’re going to see.
After nearly two and a half years, and just days following the Louisiana Legislature’s latest adjournment, it’s safe to assume the two chambers aren’t sitting on any big ideas—particularly for budgeting and taxes—that’ll be sprung on voters in 2019.
Lawmakers have traditionally been more willing to embrace reforms during the first year of a term, typically on the heels of strong voter support for a candidate or political sentiment. Striking fast has been and always will be key, since personalities and platforms fade with the passage of time. The second and third years of a term usually offer a few more swings on major issues, but they’re more likely to be filled with opportunities for follow-up work and avenues for legislators to pursue local issues.
Then there’s the closing year of a term, which is where things can get sticky. The final 12 months of each term not only host the Legislature’s last regular session, but also the election cycle that will determine the fate of lawmakers looking to return to Baton Rouge. With a few exceptions, those parting floor votes are tame in nature, so as not to stir the electorate.
That’s not to say the election year prep work doesn’t begin sooner. This year (the current term’s third), for example, saw a handful of rural legislators moving closing to the center on equal pay and minimum wage, after being supportive in 2016 and 2017. The point should be clear to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Looziana politics. The closer some lawmakers get to re-election, the squirrellier they become.
There are some significant strides—reforms, even—that have been slam-dunked by this Legislature since January 2016, especially in regard to the criminal justice system and our courts. But it has been a different tune on revenue and spending concerns.
Lawmakers fell short on delivering, and the promised fiscal reforms of 2016, first floated by House Republicans and then repeated by Senate Democrats and everyone else, have become nothing more than headline clippings in a scrapbook.
At this point in this column—roughly halfway through, like the legislative term—it’s important to note that the Legislature could simply flip the script. Lawmakers could call themselves into a special session and deliver to the governor their vision for a better Louisiana. Or legislative leaders could begin working independently right now on a plan for the 2019 regular session, during which taxes can be debated.
Lawmakers can still shake things up if they just put their minds to it, y’all.
This is likewise the point in this column where every state worker, reporter, lobbyist and longtime Capitol observer will loudly groan. That’s because the chances are slim.
To be a bit repetitive, we may have seen everything we’re going to see from this current crop of state legislators. But don’t forget that this is the same Legislature that elected the first independent House speaker in generations and the same Legislature that worked more consecutive days that any other since statehood. The present membership seems to like surprises.
As for Gov. John Bel Edwards, whose own ideas and politics have been kicked around and battered by this term’s Session-Palooza, he has a little more wiggle room. Given his executive authority and reach in state government, Edwards may still have something to show us. Now, if the initiative has to navigate the Legislature over the next year and a half, then fates become shared.
In order to produce something magical inside Louisiana’s guiding laws, the governor needs the Legislature and the Legislature needs the governor. But we’ve been there before, right? In April 2016 Bayou State residents started paying a temporary sales tax that elected officials at the Capitol initially suggested would be a bridge to more significant tax and budget changes. By summer 2017, officials were no closer to a fix than they were 12 months prior. If anything, it should have been the first sign that uncertainty would be a defining theme this term. Now, in summer 2018, a long-term solution seems as elusive as ever.
Still, many this week have been celebrating the renewal of the portion of state sales tax that was added in April 2016. That decision brought to a close this year’s third special session and, one would hope, the need for any further sessions this calendar year. People should be celebrating. Why not? There are men and women who have worked way too many hours this year, apart from those they love, while waiting for the Capitol’s top influencers to make a move.
Well, it appears all the moves have been made. And that would mean that the story of this term has already been written, which more than a few lawmakers would certainly accuse reporters of doing anyhow. But have we actually heard the final gasp from this term of the Louisiana Legislature? Are they done?
Only they can answer those questions honestly. The rest of us will wait and see.