House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry turned heads last week when he pushed the state budget bill through the lower chamber and sent it to the Senate for further consideration. Legislatively, it was a notable feat, but what Henry suggested about the politics of the session was something else entirely.
“It’s one of the easiest budget processes we’ve gone through in the four years I’ve been here,” said Henry, a Republican from Jefferson Parish.
That’s a heck of a statement to make at the tail end of a term where every other regular session has required a subsequent special session due to disagreements between the House and Senate. It was also another clear signal that lawmakers are ready to go home.
If Henry’s comment wasn’t enough, representatives ended last week with a bit of fun on the House floor, mimicking what the chamber typically looks like at sine die, or adjournment. “Members, can we refrain from throwing objects across the chamber, please?” asked Speaker Taylor Barras.
The end is indeed near, whether lawmakers are ready or not. The session must conclude by June 6, leaving roughly three weeks for the work that remains.
If the budget can be passed through the sometimes-splintered House, then the days ahead should be smooth sailing — with a bit of luck.
There’s an easier-going vibe at the Capitol these days that Gov. John Bel Edwards probably would have enjoyed during his first year in office.
That was back in 2016, when a string of contentious sessions transformed the House and Senate into two of the hardest working groups ever charged with legislating. (Actually, the Legislature spent more consecutive days in session that year than any other since 1812.)
Not that the cooler political temps would have done much good for a couple of Edwards’ centerpiece policy proposals, such as a higher minimum wage and equal pay. But at this point, with the session nearing its conclusion and re-election just a few months away, the Edwards Administration is running out of time and opportunities.
The related measures that still had a trajectory as of the writing of this column (early Monday, May 13) seemed destined for failure.
Such a finish would at least track previous attempts by the administration this term to increase wages and narrow perceived gender gaps in the workforce.
Edwards has been supportive of SB 155 by Democratic Sen. Troy Carter of New Orleans, which would institute a $9 minimum wage next summer. Similar legislation has made it out of the Senate labor committee in recent years as well, but the concept has always failed to gain support elsewhere in the process. The difference this go around, according to the author of the legislation, is that voters would play a key role. “Let the people of Louisiana weigh in,” Carter told his colleagues.
While the writing might be on the proverbial wall when it comes to those particular issues, the governor still faces a few wild cards in his final session, beginning with Attorney General Jeff Landry. The full Senate has given approval to legislation backed by Landry to protect health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. SB 173 by Republican Sen. Fred Mills of Parks has become a major issue for Landry, who is one of 20 GOP officials from across the country challenging the Affordable Care Act.
Edwards initially preferred a House version authored by Democratic Rep. Chad Brown of Plaquemine, but that bill was involuntarily deferred. So what will Edwards do if the Mills legislation moves through the House like it did the Senate? Will he sign a bill supported by a Republican official he has repeatedly butted heads with?
For starters, the governor “strongly believes” the state should help protect people with pre-existing conditions in the event Landry’s lawsuit is successful. To his credit, Edwards began sounding the alarm on this issue last year.
But will he sign the bill? “The governor has never said that he wouldn’t sign Landry’s bill,” a spokesperson said, “but will determine next steps when and if the bill receives final approval from the Legislature.”
The budget could potentially get thorny as well, based on nothing else but recent history. Still, the budget, for now at least, appears to be on a safe path.
As for Edwards’ cornerstone policy promises for a higher minimum wage and equal pay, it looks like he’ll be heading back to the ballot without delivering on those policy vows. But Edwards will be able to communicate a very clear message to primary voters on those topics.
He never gave up and he played every possible angle.
That may be enough to satisfy his base, but it may also be an issue that Edwards will have to explain with care to more conservative voters in a runoff scenario. Either way, his efforts and commitment have been well documented.