As of the writing of this column, the Louisiana Legislature and the Edwards Administration still had a little more time to throw down all shields in a grand display of cooperation. (The special session, which has once again pitted the House against the Senate and governor, must adjourn by midnight on Wednesday, Feb. 23.)
By all indications, however, the special session is expected to come to a close without new friends won inside the rails of the Legislature and without that delicate touch of diplomatic influence that has been so badly needed.
The tension between the House and Senate in particular was palpable during the closing days of the special session. So was the bad blood that was brewing between some members of the House and the administration.
There were divisions and sub-divisions to behold and fractions of factions to unravel. Very little in the way of communications, in regard to policy negotiations, has changed since the tumultuous sessions of 2016.
At one point the governor, in a late night press conference, suggested the House leadership wanted to halt conversations with the Senate altogether — and was keeping its own members in the dark.
“The House Republicans, I believe, wanted to do a bilateral negotiation with me that left out Democrats in the House, but also left out the entire Senate,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Leaders in the House GOP shook off the suggestion and countered that the governor was only trying to create controversy. Not that anyone needed to create it; drama and controversy climbed into public view regularly during the special session.
During a floor debate last week over revenue and spending priorities, Democratic Rep. Sam Jones filed what he called the “Dishonest Lawmaker Amendment,” which questioned GOP budget tactics. That in turn prompted freshman Rep. Tanner Magee, a Republican, to refer to Jones and the governor as “dishonest.”
Jones, an old hand at the Capitol, didn’t miss a beat. “I want to thank Rep. Magee for protecting my integrity,” he said with a laugh.
It was seen on the Senate side, too, when Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur asked his committee colleagues to send Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry’s supplemental budget bill to the floor without action— a procedural move that ignores an actual committee vote. LaFleur said the committee was going to “treat Cameron Henry like we treated our president.”
The most important takeaway from all of this — and the one most feared by politicos involved in the process — was just how excruciatingly tough the regular session will be.
That cannot be overstated. The regular session that convenes on April 10 will be more pressure-filled than anything this current Legislature has seen, with $1.5 billion in temporary taxes that need to be addressed and another budget shortfall of a few hundred million dollars.
There was only one question that mattered in the special session: Who will bend first? It’s also the key question to the entire legislative term.
During the special session the House, Senate and governor had three different sets of numbers for how much should be cut overall. They also disagreed on the amount that should be taken out of the emergency Rainy Day Fund, how much money unfilled positions would create and how much cash should be siphoned from the attorney general’s office.
At times that led to mini-wars between staffs. Accusations that numbers were wrong flew left and right — although none of the players involved were willing to say they were wrong.
“Some people are saying, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts,’” added Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.
Dardenne, Edward’s chief budget advisor, even slammed House Republicans during the special session for allegedly claiming they would find the money “somewhere” to erase the current fiscal year budget shortfall of $304 million.
“We don’t have a department of somewhere,” said Dardenne. “We don’t have a secretary of somewhere.”
Each time the Legislature reached a disagreement over policy, it was the same pattern. The governor would offer a high number, the House leadership would lowball it and the Senate would emerge with a compromise figure.
Another important question moving forward is whether the Senate has been negotiating on behalf of the governor or if it’s attempting to emerge as the voice of reason between the lower chamber and the administration. If it’s indeed the latter, the Senate may have the most important role to play of all during what remains of this term.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, as the session was winding down, appeared to be negotiating publicly from the Senate floor with the House, noting the pattern described above. The governor went high on what he wanted out of the Rainy Day Fund, the House went low and the Senate tried to land in the middle, hoping the House would bite.
But it was clear to anyone listening that the Senate didn’t know what to expect. “At this point we’re kind of shooting in the dark,” said Morrell.
And that kind of shooting will most certainly continue into the spring regular session. So keep your head down.