Session cooperation surprising

BIG THREE — Jay Dardenne, left, Louisiana commissioner of administration, discusses state budget plans with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, center, and Senate President Page Cortez, both Republicans. 

Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state’s overwhelmingly Republican Legislature didn’t get everything they wanted during this year’s special session. The state’s nearly 4.7 million citizens are better off because both groups, for the most part, worked together.

Among the 67 Republicans in the House and the 27 party members in the Senate there are some two dozen or more GOP ultra-conservatives who could have created havoc had they prevailed. They planned and failed on two occasions, for example, to try and overrule decisions Edwards made to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The $35 billion state budget for fiscal year 2020-21 ended up pretty much the way Edwards had presented it to lawmakers in February. The governor did say he wasn’t happy that $60 million he had planned for pay raises for the state’s classified workers was set aside.

Thanks to $900 million in federal coronavirus aid, the state avoided serious budget controversies. That aid also helped legislators send money to local governments, businesses and a small amount to front-line workers.

Edwards said budget cuts still had to be made to higher education and health care, the two unprotected areas of state spending. However, the reductions could have been much higher if not for the federal assistance.

The No. 1 priority of Republican legislators and business groups was passage of a bill changing the state’s legal system in an effort to reduce auto insurance lawsuits. The bill that was finally approved made some changes, but not all the changes that supporters wanted.

Negotiations between the governor’s administration and Republican sponsors of about a half-dozen legal reform bills ended up forging a compromise measure that Edwards said he would sign.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry was a major supporter of legal reform. Stephen Waguespack, its president and CEO, called passage of the bill a “victory for common sense,” and added that it “appears to be simply the first bite at the apple. Our work has only just begun.”

Edwards at an after-session news conference was asked what he thought about business tax breaks that were approved by lawmakers. Those breaks will cost nearly $25 million in the fiscal year that started Wednesday, but could cost about $227 million over the next five years.

The governor said it was too early to know what real effect the tax breaks will have until October when another special session is expected to be held. Edwards said the state may have a better idea by then about what effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on state finances.

“Dynamic scoring” is a new phrase that popped up during budget discussions about business tax breaks. One legislator said cutting taxes would prompt businesses to employ more people who would buy more goods and pay more taxes.

The Advocate reported that Kansas used dynamic scoring in 2012 to adopt major reductions for income taxes. The expected extra revenues didn’t happen and the state lost hundreds of millions in revenues. The newspaper said Republicans had dominated Kansas since 1860, but voters elected a Democratic governor in 2018.

The 35 Democrats in the Louisiana House and the 12 in the Senate complained about the session being too heavy on tax break expansions with too little focus on struggling workers and families.

Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt of Slidell disagreed. “We’re helping our people by giving them the ability to provide for their family, by giving them a job and an opportunity to pay the rent and to pay their light bills and to take care of their kids. Without a little bit of help, these businesses are going to shut down.”

Democrats did eventually convince Republicans to use $50 million in federal coronavirus aid to give frontline workers a one-time $250 “hazard payment.”

The payments will go to grocery store employees, bus drivers and health care workers who stayed on the job in the early days of the pandemic. Recipients have to make no more than $50,000 a year, and the payments are on a first-come, firstserved basis.

Black lawmakers also successfully sponsored creation of a task force to study police training, misconduct and racial bias recognition in Louisiana.

Edwards at his news conference thanked Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, both Republicans, for their cooperative spirit. He said since the two GOP leaders worked together it made negotiations easier.

The Advocate reported Sunday that Louisiana is suffering through the worst economy in at least 50 years, and perhaps since the Great Depression during the 1930s.

Gary Wagner, an economics professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told the newspaper, “It looks like not until the second half of 2022 at the earliest will Louisiana’s economy return to where we were in February 2020.”

Louisiana needs the unexpected cooperation we saw during the special session that just ended to continue if we hope to make that forecast a reality.

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