By Jeremy Alford & Mitch Rabalais
The Senate Finance Committee started the process of wrapping up its deliberations over the state budget by taking sometimes tearful testimony from the public.
A few who spoke during the committee meeting attended with their wheelchair-bound loved ones, while others represented voices under more serious care far from the confines of the Capitol.
Like other recent versions of Louisiana’s annual spending plan, the cuts-heavy budget approved by the House drew emotional appeals from people who rely on state funding for services for children with severe disabilities and elderly citizens who are completely immobile.
“This makes us look pretty heartless,” said Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, after a few hours of public testimony.
The personal stories, as they usually do, humanized the role of the state budget, which has otherwise been mired in politics this calendar year.
The version sent to the Senate by the House last month reduced health care funding by $432 million, which, LaFleur estimated, would leave 45,000 individuals with disabilities without critical services. It’s a cut that would equate to a $1.6-billion loss when federal matching dollars are sacrificed.
The possibility of such a change in services made for a tough public hearing.
“I apologize that you have to go through this again,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-New Orleans, with a polite nod to the perennial doom-and-gloom narratives that surface toward the end of each regular session.
“It’s hard, but important, to listen to testimony in some cases where people are begging for their lives,” tweeted Greg Hilburn, a reporter for the USA Today network of Louisiana papers, who joined other journalists tracking the hearing.
Earlier in the day, Hilburn broke the story that the Louisiana Department of Health will likely send nursing home eviction notices to more than 30,000 residents. Lafayette General Medical Center has sent layoff notices to its employees, noting uncertainty in the budget process.
In the face of such criticism, Republicans in the House are pushing to have their budget bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee.
While leery, and accepting of the fact that hearings may need to be restarted in an approaching special session, leaders in the upper chamber are trying in earnest to forge a seemingly impossible compromise that heeds the broad-based visions that the House put in the budget; takes into account the Senate’s concerns; and attempts to avoid the veto pen of the governor.
Some senators are hopeful that amendments will be heard soon and an altered budget will be passed to the full chamber. But those alterations will have to be significant.
“It’s the worst budget I’ve ever seen in the 18 years that I’ve been here,” Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, told LaPolitics.
The budget debate, which remains at a crawl, could likewise influence the ability of lawmakers to adjourn the regular session early so another special session can be convened.
The governor and legislative leaders see the premature adjournment as an avenue to get into a special session so that substantive tax proposals can be considered to address the state’s revenue shortfall for the next fiscal year.
Political History: Constitutional Convention Becomes Full-Scale Riot
By 1866, Louisiana had been devastated by the ravages of the Civil War. Almost 3,000 of the state’s citizens had been killed in the conflict, with bloody battles waged in Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville and the Red River region.
Because occupation by Union troops had suspended the functions of state government, new elections had been held at the conclusion of the war in 1865. Pro-Union “Radical Republicans” split control of the Legislature with conservative Democrats, who were in favor of returning the state to the antebellum status quo.
Lawmakers then became engulfed in a debate over voting rights for both newly freed slaves and former Confederates. Republicans pushed for the enfranchisement of African-Americans, while Democrats advocated for the restoration of voting rights for former Confederates. Both sides knew that their particular group was key to their holding political power in the state.
Unable to resolve the matter, then-Gov. James Madison Wells and the Legislature called for a constitutional convention to be held in July of 1866. Because the State Capitol in Baton Rouge had burned during the course of the war, the convention was slated to be held at the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans.
Delegates received numerous death threats in the days leading up to the convention, according to historian Donald Reynolds’ account of the events. Both African-Americans and former Confederates held huge rallies in New Orleans, as rumors of an armed uprising gripped the city.
When the convention was gaveled in on July 30, only 25 delegates were in attendance. Unable to gather a quorum, the convention stood at ease while sergeants-at-arms were dispatched to find the remaining delegates.
Meanwhile, a group of nearly 250 African-Americans were marching up Canal Street, protesting for voting rights and showing their support for the Republicans. A large number of former Confederates were already outside the Mechanics Institute, having spent most of the morning heckling the delegates.
When the two sides met on a corner, a full altercation ensued, with the mob of former Confederates attacking the unarmed African-American protesters. Police soon joined the fracas and shots rang out across Canal Street.
When the smoke cleared, 40 people, including three delegates, were dead. The constitutional convention disbanded, while an outraged U.S. Congress used the event to push for the passage of the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship and constitutional rights to all people born in the U.S. But it would take nearly another 100 years to fully resolve the voting rights issue in Louisiana.
Senator Running For The House
A member of the upper chamber since 2008, Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, confirmed to LaPolitics recently that he will be a candidate in House District 20 next year.
That makes Riser the third senator to express an interest in running for the House after his time in the upper chamber concludes.
Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, is expected to qualify in House District 19, possibly alongside East Carroll Parish Police Jury President Lee Denny, who at one time was interested in the contest.
Then there’s Senate President John Alario, R-Alario, who is thinking about House District 83, but is in no way committed.
As for Riser and that northeast Louisiana House district, Catahoula Parish Police Juror Judy Duhon is also looking to run. The real question is whether incumbent Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, runs for re-election in House District 20.
He had publicly announced his intentions not to run last cycle, but qualified anyway. This go-around, however, there are some local politicos who are urging Pylant to consider running in Senate District 32, which Riser is vacating due to term limits.
Constitutional Amendment Filings Reach Six-Year Low
The number of proposed constitutional amendments introduced by state legislators during regular sessions has hit a six-year low, just as momentum is building for another constitutional convention.
For the 2018 regular session, members of the House and Senate dropped 40 constitutional amendments into the hopper. That’s the lowest number on record since the 2011 regular session, which hosted 31 constitutional amendments.
In this timeframe, the interest in amendment bills displayed by lawmakers peaked during the final year of the last term, in 2015, when 67 such instruments were introduced for debate.
Preservers of the current Constitution that was drafted in 1974 welcome this trend with open arms. But readers of the lay of the land want to see a couple more years’ worth of data before labeling it as a trend or any kind of sea change in policymaking.
It’ll be worth waiting to see how many amendments are actually approved during the ongoing regular session.
They Said It
“Unfortunately, everything in this building has become difficult.”
— Gov. John Bel Edwards, to members of One Acadiana
“We’ve got some knot-heads down here.”
— Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, on the Legislature
“You’re dressed like a lawyer.”
— State Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, to Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, during committee testimony at the Capitol
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
— Harris, responding to Miguez.
For more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics.com or follow Jeremy Alford on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.