- Associated Press - Sunday, May 28, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Partisanship. Factions. Disagreement.

Louisiana’s latest lawmaking session has taken a sideways turn, with the few major bills expected to win final passage threatened by familiar themes that have started to raise questions about whether the state Legislature is becoming as dysfunctional as Congress.

Deep divides separate House Republicans and Democrats. A wide philosophical gulf splits House GOP leaders and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Friction continues between the Senate and the House over the size and role of state government.

With the session in its final two weeks, tensions have intensified as irritable lawmakers who have been in near-perpetual meetings since the term began 17 months ago find difficulty reaching common ground on basic tasks of legislating - and tougher tasks of policymaking.

A deal on the state’s $29 billion-plus operating budget appears in question. Construction spending plans are being held hostage by House Democrats seeking a toehold in larger financial debates in which they’ve been sidelined by House Republicans. In retaliation, House Republicans at least temporarily sidetracked an overhaul of Louisiana’s criminal sentencing laws that Democrats have championed along with many of their GOP colleagues.

There’s no chance the House and Senate will reach any agreement on how to whittle away a more than $1 billion “fiscal cliff” looming in mid-2018 when temporary sales taxes expire and threaten to blow a hole in the state’s budget. House Republicans have bottled up Edwards’ entire tax agenda in the House tax committee.

And the governor and legislative leaders agree that the inaction of this legislative session will have lawmakers marching toward an inevitable special session sometime over the next year before the taxes expire on June 30, 2018.

At this point, the Louisiana Legislature will be lucky to negotiate a final set of spending plans for the financial year that begins July 1 before lawmakers wrap up their work on June 8. If they don’t, they’d have to come back for an immediate special session to complete that task.

Much of the gridlock at the moment centers in the House.

House Democrats derailed a bill that pays for state-financed construction work, like building repairs, economic development projects, park improvements and lawmakers’ favored local projects. They stymied the measure trying to get leverage in a budget and tax deal they’ve been unable to reach with their Republican colleagues and seeking more representation on the financial committees.

“It’s a way for us to have a conversation, and that’s the most important thing,” said New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, the House’s top-ranking Democrat. While Leger said Republicans talk to Democrats about state financial plans, he said the conversations “have largely been us being told what’s going to happen.”

Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House Republican Delegation, described the maneuver as “Washington-style politics,” and said it does little to motivate GOP lawmakers.

Responding with a similar maneuver, Republicans forced postponement of votes on criminal justice overhaul bills. Lawmakers, both GOP and Democrat, said some Republicans threatened to make passage difficult, if not impossible.

Rep. Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican who sponsored one of the criminal justice bills, told his colleagues as he delayed a vote until this week, “I think we need to come together as a body and let the wounds (from) this session heal a little bit.”

Meanwhile, the Senate is working on its version of next year’s state operating budget, interested in spending more money than the House version. House Republican leaders who crafted the budget left $206 million on the table, saying they believe state income forecasts are too rosy. Edwards said stripping those dollars would force harmful, unnecessary cuts.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, said senators are being told that adding dollars back into the budget bill is considered “a deal-breaker” by the House.

“I’m not sure how much room there is to negotiate,” LaFleur said.

After a Memorial Day weekend cooling-off period, lawmakers hope some hostilities will have lessened. The Legislature always seems to work more intently when the session end nears.

“I’ve found that the closer you get to deadline, the more people are willing to listen to things,” Harris said recently.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte


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