Louisiana Spotlight: No budget woes? Lawmakers picked other fights
BATON ROUGE — Freed from the budget problems of prior years, Louisiana lawmakers found other things to bicker about in their just-ended session: abortion, sports betting, and even cauliflower rice and soy milk.
But after years of angry battles over taxes and spending, even the most heated feuds of the 60-day session that ended Thursday seemed pretty low-key by comparison.
One of the most contentious fights involved whether to legalize sports betting, an effort pushed for two years by term-limited Sen. Danny Martiny, a Kenner Republican who had this one last session to try to win support.
House lawmakers stalled the proposal. Martiny fumed at the microphone about how he was treated by House members. And in retaliation, he helped sink a separate fantasy sports regulation and taxation package sought by the House.
A new abortion ban passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, which won’t take effect unless a federal court upholds a similar Mississippi law, drew more rancorous debates than anti-abortion measures in years past. A handful of Democrats strongly objected to their colleagues’ refusal to include exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest in the ban on abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, grew angry on the final day of session when it became clear his bid to exempt feminine hygiene products and diapers from sales taxes would fail to win final passage. He cited the abortion ban, the Legislature’s refusal to ratify an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the failure of equal pay and minimum wage proposals.
“Yet again, the Legislature fails women,” Morrell said.
Senators argued over whether to let medical marijuana patients use an inhaler, like asthma patients use, finally agreeing to pass it in the final week.
Prompting irritation from a number of lawmakers in the waning days of session were proposals targeting cauliflower rice, almond milk and non-meat burgers. The legislation aims to keep veggie products from being marketed as milk, rice and meat.
Ultimately, the House and Senate agreed to the food labeling restrictions that Edwards said he intended to sign into law. But passage only came after loud debate and mocking over the protectionist measures for farmers. Rep. Raymond Crews, a Bossier Parish Republican, called the legislation “silliness really.”
A last-minute feud also erupted between lawmakers who wanted to enact a minimum marriage age in Louisiana and conservative House members who fought the idea, arguing it could delegitimize children born to teenagers. A bill setting the minimum age to marry at 16 passed in the session’s last hour.
Despite the tamer nature of the session, one trend that didn’t fail to repeat itself was timing. Lawmakers procrastinated on reaching deals, and the session ended as it nearly always does, in a frenzy of last-minute bill passages that seemed entirely unnecessary to go down to the wire.
After a decade of worry about looming or immediate budget gaps, a seven-year tax deal passed last year left lawmakers with a more pleasant difficulty. They had to decide where to spend new dollars for next year and a surplus left over from last year.
As usual, the House and Senate managed to be at odds over that task. Behind-the-scenes negotiations on the $30 billion state operating budget, a multibillion-dollar state construction budget and a package of companion budget bills continued until nearly Thursday’s 6 p.m. mandatory adjournment.
Meanwhile, lawmakers sat around, taking photos, signing session keepsakes, and giving farewell speeches.
A chaotic passing of the spending plans came in the last half-hour before lawmakers had to wrap up with little explanation of what the final negotiated deal contained.
At one point, Senate President John Alario grew frustrated that the House, which had control of the bills, hadn’t sent over the final documents for passage.
“We should have had this two or three hours ago,” the Westwego Republican lamented. “It’s too important to the people of this state.”
Still, Republicans and Democrats largely applauded the final budget plan, which pumps new dollars into public colleges, K-12 teacher pay raises, early learning programs, senior centers, foster care, and services for the disabled.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte