The Louisiana Legislature opens its 2022 regular session on Monday with a welcome dilemma: how best to spend an influx of cash the state hasn’t seen in years, while debating familiar issues again. of “culture war” involving transgender athletes, race, vaccine mandates and abortion.
The Republican-dominated Legislature will also face unresolved business from February’s special session on redrawing government district boundaries, thanks to a veto of a new map of Congress by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Some are also expected to change the maps of the State House and Senate that survived Edwards’ veto pen.
After facing years of tight budgets, this year lawmakers will debate how best to spend higher tax revenues and an influx of more than $2.8 billion in one-time revenue – $1.4 billion from federal pandemic assistance, $700 million in fiscal year 2021 surplus, and $853 million in revenue higher than forecast for the current year.
Among the ways Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed spending expected recurring tax revenue: $148 million on pay raises for Louisiana teachers and school support staff; $103 million for higher education teachers and another $25 million for early childhood education.
His suggestions for one-time revenue include allocating $500 million to the cost of a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, $100 million for a new Interstate 10 bridge in Lake Charles, $100 million $ for work on Interstate 49 and $ 25 million for rail transportation between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Edwards’ top finance official, Jay Dardenne, presented the governor’s proposals to lawmakers in January, acknowledging lawmakers will want changes.
“Certainly when you have money like this, which this legislature, this governor hasn’t had in a long time, there’s obviously going to be a lot of hands, a lot of requests and a lot of suggestions about priorities that should be,” Dardenne said.
The Baton Rouge Bridge is a long-awaited project for Baton Rouge residents and anyone who passes through the area during peak traffic hours.
But approval to invest $500 million in such a bridge is far from a slam dunk. The administration argues that spending the money now would help secure more public and private funding later. House and Senate leaders debated whether this was the best way to spend the money.
“It’s hard to park half a billion dollars of excess money that could sit there for 10 or 15 years,” Senate Speaker Page Cortez said during a Louisiana Public Affairs Research Council webinar.
And while Edwards has pointed out that his budget proposal foresees recurring costs — like his proposal to increase teacher pay — to be paid for with revenue that should be available each year, lawmakers will need to consider factors that could reduce income for years to come. A 0.45% state sales tax enacted in 2018 to balance the budget expires in mid-2025, reducing annual tax revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Lawmakers met in a special session in February to redraw district boundaries for Congress, the State House and the Senate and other government bodies. But Edwards vetoed the congressional plan, saying that in a state where nearly a third of the population is black, lawmakers should include a second majority-black district among the six congressional districts.
The Republican-dominated Legislature could pass the same plan again – a bill to that effect has been introduced. Or they could interrupt regular session work to try to muster the two-thirds vote needed in each chamber to override Edwards’ veto. Ideally, the state will have a plan in place before qualifying for the Congressional races begins on July 20.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers are upset that Edwards didn’t veto state House and Senate maps that don’t include majority-minority districts. There will likely be attempts to adopt new plans to replace those adopted at the special session.
Some conservative lawmakers chafed at Edwards’ restrictions on public gatherings early in the pandemic, and also criticized New Orleans officials who imposed proof of vaccine or negative test requirements for entry into the bars or restaurants. Even with the drop in cases and the lifting of restrictions, the problem remains.
Among the bills dealing with the issue is one that prohibits local governments from requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of participating in any “constitutionally protected activity.”
Last year, Edwards vetoed a bill banning transgender athletes from competing on school sports teams of their identified gender. The bill was reintroduced for this year’s session.
LGBT advocates will push again to extend the law banning discrimination in housing to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
Louisiana already has a 15-week abortion ban on the books, as well as a total abortion ban that would go into effect if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade who upheld the right to abortion. Lawmakers in the new session have proposed bills banning abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected (experts say that’s about six weeks into a pregnancy).
Another anti-abortion bill bans the sale of abortion drugs without a prescription and creates the crime of “chemically induced abortion.”
Another bill Edwards opposed last year would have allowed the carrying of concealed handguns without the need for a license, safety training and background check. The bill is back for the 2022 session.
For supporters of tougher gun laws, there’s a proposal to leave more than a dozen south Louisiana parishes, including Orleans and surrounding parishes in the southeast and Calcasieu in the south. West, enact more restrictive gun laws than the state, something no locality can currently do.
A bill setting out educational requirements for public schools requires teaching on Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and prohibits teaching that one race is inherently superior to others. This will likely spark a debate with language that also forbids stating that any gender, race, ethnicity, or national origin is “advantaged, disadvantaged, privileged, disadvantaged, biased, or oppressed over another.”
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