Long, Loaded Agenda Crammed into La.’s 17-day Legislative Session

November 7, 2005

Figuring out Louisiana’s budget and agreeing on ways to cut millions of dollars in spending alone could take state lawmakers more than two and a half weeks under normal circumstances.

Reaching any kind of consensus on a way to deal with New Orleans’ troubled school system often has bogged the Legislature down for hours, weeks – and has been an ongoing debate that has stretched over years.

Insurance. Elections. Tax breaks. Matters involving any of these issues can take months of negotiation before they get legislative approval.

And the governor has called lawmakers into a special session to deal with those hefty topics and an array of others, many controversial, many loaded in politics and many that would normally take more than the 17 days allotted for the special session.

As lawmakers get to the real start of work Monday, the question is whether the political landscape or anything about the speed of the Legislature has changed in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“We can turn a bill around in four days under pressure. It can be done just that fast. I think we have enough time. I think we’re going to have to work all 17 days,” said Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, head of the House Republican caucus.

“I think the 900-pound gorilla in this deal is the budget,” he said.

The hurricanes devastated tax income for the state with businesses shuttered and residents scattered. The state’s budget was left with a gaping hole, and Louisiana is required by its constitution to maintain a balanced budget.

Individual state agencies are having further problems with their own sources of income: licenses not being purchased and fees not being paid that are deepening their shortfalls.

Though the governor was making her own cuts, the entire budget is on the table for lawmakers in the special session to determine if they agree with Blanco or if they want to do something completely different to rebalance spending with the state’s income.

Normally, the budget process takes months even when the state’s financial picture is rosy. And lawmakers are looking at a revamp in less than three weeks – with a whole slew of other items on their agenda, 77 possible topics allowed into the session by Blanco, to be exact.

Among the hot-button issues the governor is backing are a statewide building code, a revamp of the New Orleans school system that would take control of the city’s failing schools away from the troubled local school board and unified state oversight of the fractured system of levees that protect coastal areas, towns and New Orleans.

There’s also an ethics proposal that would require public officials in Louisiana who are getting federal hurricane recovery contracts to report those contracts to the state ethics board and a list of business tax breaks to help re-attract companies to devastated areas like New Orleans.

So much for the limited session Blanco once said she intended to call this month. That went by the wayside after lawmakers complained, saying they needed to do more quickly for the state’s recovery efforts and suggesting they may call themselves into their own session – a rare show of independence – if Blanco didn’t broaden her special session agenda.

When she outlined the framework for the session last week, Blanco said she decided to widen the scope after asking departments what they needed and talking to legislators.

“In doing that, we began to realize that there was more depth and dimension that needed to be addressed. A state like ours, or I don’t think any state, has ever had as many displaced citizens and has had so much economic upheaval,” she said. “Things became apparent as time went on.”

The session legally must end by Nov. 22 at 6 p.m., two days before Thanksgiving. Blanco intends to call the Legislature into another special session in January. Many of the more heated issues may simply overlap both sessions if lawmakers stalemate and run out of time. The governor said she expected that might be the case.

And she said there’s the regular legislative session in March.

“If it proves to be too much, then we can come back in January and again in March,” Blanco said

Melinda Deslatte wrote this analysis for the Associated Press.

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