By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Election-year legislative sessions in Louisiana aren’t typically known for big ideas and don’t usually conclude with far-reaching change, as lawmakers are reticent to do anything that might irritate voters only months before they go to the polls.
That doesn’t mean the regular session opening Monday in Baton Rouge won’t see a lot of grandstanding and a significant amount of speechifying, particularly if that could bolster a TV ad or a campaign mailer.
About the only thing lawmakers need to make sure they do before they go home is pass a budget for the financial year that starts July 1. After a seven-year tax deal last year ended the seesaw of repeated, annual budget gaps, that task might have seemed fairly straightforward.
But with the sharp philosophical and political disagreements between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Republican leaders, even a stabilized state revenue base hasn’t stopped the arguments.
With Edwards seeking a second term in the Oct. 12 election, it’s a safe bet some Republican lawmakers want to make this session a tricky one for the governor. Many Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, want to find ways to carve out victories for Edwards to tout on the campaign trail.
Edwards faces two Republican challengers: U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a doctor from rural northeast Louisiana; and wealthy businessman Eddie Rispone, a long-time donor to GOP political candidates and causes and a first-time candidate for office. Abraham and Rispone — and other outside GOP groups — will be monitoring the session closely for fodder to use against Edwards.
Amid that backdrop, Edwards and House Republican leaders are bickering about how much money to spend in the 2019-20 budget year, and the state’s usually apolitical income forecasting panel has become a central tool in the dispute.
The governor’s Medicaid expansion program also is a prime target for GOP criticism. Edwards promotes the program to voters as one of his greatest achievements by offering insurance coverage to 500,000 people, and Republicans slam it as rife with fraud and misspending.
Taxes again are back for debate, though few predict sweeping change on that front.
Besides the governor’s race, six other statewide jobs are on the October ballot: lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, insurance commissioner, and agriculture commissioner.
The occupants of each of those offices are running again. They’ll be pushing bills for their agencies, including ideas they could possibly peddle as selling points to voters.
For example, Republican Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain will be defending himself against criticism that he’s created too many regulatory hurdles in Louisiana’s medical marijuana program. Cannabis still hasn’t reached patients nearly four years after lawmakers approved the dispensing framework. Strain says his office isn’t the roadblock, pointing to lagging paperwork from one of the two state-sanctioned growing operations.
Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry has taken jabs for joining Louisiana in a Texas federal lawsuit trying to invalidate the entire federal Affordable Care Act. This session, Landry’s pushing legislation to enact some of the federal law’s health protections into state law, such as prohibiting denial of insurance for pre-existing conditions. Edwards is pushing a similar measure, while the two men slam each other. Landry says the federal law is unconstitutional overreach, and Edwards says Landry’s now trying to fix a problem he’s helping to create.
Beyond the statewide offices, all 144 legislative seats are up for grabs in the fall election.
More than 40% of the Senate (16 out of 39 senators) and nearly 30% of the House (31 out of 105 members) are term-limited, unable to run again for their seats.
Many term-limited House members are angling to run for Senate seats, one or two senators are planning to run for their old House seats and some term-limited lawmakers are seeking other local elected jobs. Far fewer are going home with no political plans on the horizon.
Most of those who aren’t term-limited are trying to hang onto their positions. The House has 10 new members who were elected since the last legislative session who’ll have to turn around and run again this fall if they want to keep their new offices.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte