The Legislature held forth from Baton Rouge for five consecutive months this calendar year, from Feb. 19 to June 24. Throughout the Memorial Day and Easter holidays, and just as most families were taking summer vacations, Louisiana's senators and representatives were holed up inside the Capitol for three special sessions and one regular session.
It wasn't exactly hard labor, but it wasn't a cakewalk, either. There were brief breaks taken in between each session, amounting to 29 policymaking-free days. The other 96 days in question were another issue entirely, which Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, summed up quite nicely back in February, during the opening days of 2018’s first session.
"Last time I checked, we broke — like broke broke,” Cox said during a budget debate, directing his comments to Matthew Block, the governor’s executive counsel.
Block responded, "We’re working on that."
And work the Capitol class did. The brutal schedule mirrored every other legislative year this term, but the pace and tone had become compacted. The atmosphere made lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters, press flacks, department hands, pages, consultants and everyone else in the Capitol's orbit a cranky, impatient and increasingly skeptical mess. "What ever happened to a man's word around here?” Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, asked during that first session.
Acknowledging the need for new revenue and recognizing the usual conservative stance to oppose taxes, Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, urged lawmakers to embrace a compromise that was still four months away. ”We could train monkeys to come down here and vote no,” he said.
On a brighter note, this landscape proved to be fertile ground for collecting contributions to “They Said It,” a regular summary of quotes I publish along with a team of staff writers for subscribers to LaPolitics Weekly. (This year actually marks the 25th anniversary of the state’s newspapers and magazines publishing biannual editions of “They Said It” for public consumption.) These quotes — lifted from the lips of elected officials, unelected officials and official politicos — are often humorous, sometimes eyebrow-raising and always uniquely Louisiana.
“I’m going to have a drinking problem after this session,” said Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, as May was snuffing out the first special session of the year, and its intended goals.
Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, thought a psychological profile of sorts was in order. And rightfully so. “A dysfunctional family is still a family,” he said. “That’s what we are.”
Via social media accounts across the state, keyboard strokers accused lawmakers of not doing their jobs — an assertion some lawmakers did little to swat away. "How can we ask Medicaid recipients to work when we won't go to work?” asked Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin.
Unable to agree on new tax policy to fix a shortfall for the next fiscal year, lawmakers convened a regular session to pass a budget that didn’t have enough money. For its part, the Edwards administration offered up some pointed words. "Losing to Alabama in the classroom should feel just as painful as losing to them on the football field,” Gov. John Bel Edwards told lawmakers in his session-opening speech.
During another budget hearing, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told lawmakers, ”I hope the Legislature doesn’t morph into the Professional Can-Kickers Association."
Lawmakers, of course, kicked the can and failed to pass a budget. Even though legislators knew another special session was going to be scheduled, Rep. Jones argued the task shouldn’t have been paused. ”We can't even pass gas,” he told his colleagues.
By the time the second special session of the year — likewise the sixth of the term — was gaveled into action, Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, was considering a career change. "I'm beginning to feel like I'm a special session specialist,” he said.
It also became clear early on that lawmakers were not going to break their policy logjam. “I realized why Louisiana is shaped like a boot,” Rep. Ivey said at the time. “Because we are the ‘kick-the-can’ state.”
“I think kicking the can is an understatement,” Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, later added. “I think we’re putting off the inevitable.”
While another failure was chalked up at the Capitol, words did not fail to capture the mood. “You think about what you have done and think hard on the way home,” Rep. Andy Anders, D-Vidalia, said from the House floor on the session’s final day.
Less than an hour later, while speaking with reporters, Gov. Edwards weighed in as well. “It’s a crying damn shame,” he said while mentally preparing to squeeze yet another special session into June
“Hey, you know what you never forget?” asked Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, when that policymaking event was convened shortly thereafter. “You never forget your seventh special session of the term!”
To condense an otherwise long story, that seventh special session was the charm. Lawmakers forged a compromise around a temporary revenue solution (hiking the state sales tax structure) and a budget with a short-term vision.
There’s just no use trying to make sense of this legislative year, said Rep. Thibaut — and let’s all hope that this legislative year has indeed come to a close. After all, the representative said, uncertainty is now simply part of the process. “I’m looking to tomorrow,” Thibaut said, “because I’ve given up on making predictions.”
Jeremy Alford is publisher-editor of LaPolitics.com and LaPolitics Weekly. You can reach him at JJA@LaPolitics.com or 225-772-2518.