As he addressed the assembled news media, legislators and officials in the Louisiana State Capitol’s fourth-floor briefing room Thursday, shortly after the conclusion of the 2019 regular session, Gov. John Bel Edwards was in a good mood.
“How nice it is to wrap up a legislative session,” he said, putting the emphasis on “a” and eliciting a round of applause. “Not two or three or four, but to do a regular legislative session, and have it end on time and so successfully.”
After seven special sessions and three regular sessions over the past three years spent arguing about raising taxes, closing deficits and avoiding a fiscal cliff, this year’s edition was much less painful.
“I think you can see the difference having a little bit of money makes,” said Barry Erwin, president and CEO of the Council for a Better Louisiana. “You see what the Legislature can do when it’s actually in a more functional mode.”
Though he said he “couldn’t be more excited,” the 2019 regular fiscal session actually was a mixed bag for the governor, who likely faces a tough battle for re-election this year. He was stymied once again in his efforts to raise the minimum wage and eliminate private-sector pay privacy, for example.
But with help from lawmakers he was able to direct more money to education, from early childhood to higher ed, and succeeded in his top priority to give K-12 teachers their first state-funded raise in a decade. On Thursday, he touted a bill redirecting about $700 million in litigation settlement money to infrastructure projects, though that was a legislative initiative that didn’t start with the governor.
His allies knocked down attempts to undo last year’s hard-fought sales tax compromise and enact other initiatives that might have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in future budget years. Attempts to restructure the controversial Industrial Tax Exemption Program that would have either made it more business-friendly or limited local control of local tax dollars (depending on your perspective) also were defeated.
Edwards bragged that there were no “one-time dollars” in the new state budget. That’s in contrast to his predecessor, former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who on his way out the door used $850 million in one-time revenue to pay for ongoing expenses, Edwards said.
“The fact that the budget didn’t dominate debate at the Capitol this spring is testament to the success of last year’s revenue compromise, which brought much-needed stability to Louisiana’s finances,” said Jan Moller, executive director of the left-leaning Louisiana Budget Project. “For the first time in nearly a decade, the Legislature was able to have a debate about new investments in education – from public schools to early childhood and infrastructure – instead of fighting over which programs to cut.”
But Moller also expressed disappointment about the failure of measures he believes would have helped low-income families, like establishing a state minimum wage or paid family leave.
And although her preferred policies differ, Renee Amar with the right-leaning Pelican Institute for Public Policy agreed lawmakers missed opportunities to improve the state’s trajectory.
“I feel kind of ‘meh’ about the session,” Amar said, later adding that she was “so disappointed” in how it played out.
Amar wants to see more transparency in how school districts spend the dollars they get, for example. Some House Republican leaders initially insisted on new transparency measures as a condition for increased district funding, though they backed down when their position failed to gain traction.
The Pelican Institute also backed failed Republican initiatives for a flatter income tax system, spending restrictions, and legal changes that supporters argued could lead to lower auto insurance rates, among others.
But Amar is happy a statewide framework for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft will be established after a few years of trying. She praised a bill that would make it easier for taxpayers to be repaid for taxes that legally shouldn’t have been collected, though Edwards may veto that one.
She also pointed to an under-the-radar bill by Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat, that helps ex-inmates who receive hospice training in prison to use those skills in the private sector after they get out. The measure fits into the broader goal of loosening occupational licensing rules, and Amar hopes to see more like it in the future.
“A lot of this depends on the elections and how much new energy and new blood that we get in the Capitol, both on the House and the Senate side,” she said. “Do we end up with the same governor?”
CABL’s Erwin expects to see continued focus on infrastructure, possibly even a special session on the subject, which Rep. Steve Carter, the Republican sponsor of this year’s failed gas tax hike, has called for.
Most lawmakers have decided more spending is needed on early child care and education. And with state finances on relatively stable ground, revenue-neutral tax reform could finally be a real possibility, Erwin suggests.
As the term ends for the current batch of lawmakers and election season heats up, many people argue the state is better off than it was 3½ years ago, though no one says its core structural problems have been fixed. Maybe next session.