Lawmakers start special session with same divisions

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BATON ROUGE — Unable to reach a budget deal in their regular session, Louisiana’s lawmakers are moving slowly into a special session, with deep divisions and heightened tensions that seem unlikely to make crafting a compromise any easier.

“Certainly it’s hard to have a very high expectation on something changing in the next 10 days,” Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras said grimly, suggesting
the House and Senate could again be on a path to gridlock, with a scramble to try to reach a deal in the final hours of a session that must end June 19.

House Republican leaders, Senate leaders and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards seemed entrenched in their positions. Angry and frustrated lawmakers begin their work Monday — a timeline set by the House and criticized for showing a lack of urgency — with no common ground for agreement in sight.

“We need to have something done during this special session because we’ve got to have a budget July 1, otherwise state agencies can’t write a check after that time,” said Republican Senate President John Alario, of Westwego.

But after previous attempts at brokering a deal failed, Alario acknowledged for now: “I don’t know what we can compromise on.”

The core dispute centers on how much money to spend in a $28 billion-plus budget to pay for government agencies, state services and public colleges in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Both the House and Senate are majority Republican, but the House is more conservative.

Most House Republicans, led by Barras and Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, want to spend less than the full income forecast, in hopes of avoiding midyear budget cuts if the predictions come up short as has happened for years.

The Senate, the governor and House Democrats want to spend all dollars available, saying otherwise they’d have to make unnecessary cuts to colleges and public services.

In the final hours of the just-ended regular session, the two sides seemed only about $50 million to $100 million apart on the multibillion-dollar budget. But Henry, a Metairie Republican, said when he introduces a budget bill next week, he’ll return to the original figure sought by the House, seeking to leave $206 million from the revenue forecast unspent.

In other words, negotiations reset to their starting point.

Though the special session began Thursday evening, the House adjourned until Monday, amid a chaotic meltdown in the final hours of the regular session that saw Democrats and a group of Republicans try to sidestep the objections of Barras and Henry to force a vote on the Senate’s budget proposal. The maneuver failed, worsening frictions in the fractured chamber.

Edwards and Alario didn’t want the interruption in negotiations for the weekend. But the Senate also exited Baton Rouge, with no say in the schedule since budget bills start in the House.

Ahead of next week’s debate, Republicans who support the pared-back spending bill first passed by the House seemed to dig into their position.

“I’m not going to be pressured by the media, the Senate, Democrats or the governor to pass another irresponsible budget that raises your taxes or spends every single penny that we ‘think’ we’re going to have,” Rep. John Schroder, a Covington Republican, said in a statement that declared: “We will hold the line!”

Alario noted some House Republicans broke ranks with their leadership and sought unsuccessfully to vote on the Senate budget plan.

“They’ll need to talk with their leadership and find some consensus there, and we’re willing to work with them to resolve that,” he said. “There’s internal politics they need to work out among themselves.”

Barras, of New Iberia, said the philosophical divides could be tough to overcome. But he added: “I’m not giving up on it yet because I think there is an amicable solution in there somewhere.”


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