By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Only months away from a statewide election, Louisiana lawmakers open their annual legislative session Monday squabbling over finances, readying for repeat hot-topic debates and striving to draw their voters’ attention.
The 60-day regular session begins at noon. Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks to a joint gathering of the House and Senate an hour later.
While the session features none of the fears of deep, damaging cuts that marked budget debates for the last decade, financial feuds remain front and center. The Democratic governor and House Republican leaders are at loggerheads about how much the state should spend in the budget year starting July 1.
One thing that appears certain is whatever spending plan reaches the governor’s desk will contain a teacher pay raise. Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed support for the $1,000 salary boost proposed by the governor, even if they disagree over details of how to allocate the money.
They’ll again debate taxes, though little appetite seems to exist for significant change after lawmakers struck a seven-year tax deal last year. Some Republicans want to reverse Edwards’ restrictions on a property tax break program for manufacturers. Repeat efforts to raise Louisiana’s gas tax to address a $14 billion roadwork backlog face the same opposition that previously killed the proposal.
“Typically, big things, controversial things — particularly around revenue — don’t happen in an election year,” Edwards said on his monthly radio show.
Contentious debates are expected on Louisiana’s use of the death penalty, the legalization of sports betting, the loosening of marijuana penalties, the handling of sexual harassment settlements involving state officials and a proposal to ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Edwards is again proposing to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage and enact new equal pay laws, efforts that have failed three years in a row. Other repeat debates are planned on whether to enact statewide regulations for ridehailing services such as Uber and Lyft and whether to strike a new longterm deal with Harrah’s, the operator of New Orleans’ landbased casino.
The two-month session comes as Edwards is seeking a second term in the Oct. 12 election, facing two Republican challengers. All 144 legislative seats and six other statewide positions also are on the ballot. Many of the 47 term-limited lawmakers will be angling for new elected jobs, while other lawmakers will be running for re-election.
Rep. Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican, predicts the looming election will lead to more grandstanding than anything else.
“It’s going to be about positioning yourself to be in the election cycle, and I think it’s going to be a lot of just political stuff instead of substance,” Magee said.
Beyond hot-button social and financial debates, some lawmakers are offering more light-hearted measures.
Terrebonne Parish Republican Sen. Norby Chabert wants to name another official state song to a list that already includes “Give Me Louisiana” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Chabert proposes that Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” should also be given the official state song designation and the Cajun waltz should be named an official state dance.
Sen. Wesley Bishop, a New Orleans Democrat, hopes to rename Interstate 10 in Louisiana the “Who Dat Nation Highway,” in honor of New Orleans Saints football fans.