Few Issues Settled at Louisiana Session Midpoint

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers reach the halfway mark of their nine-week regular session this week, working on a budget flush with cash, struggling to gain traction for a tax overhaul and facing a debate calendar packed with controversial issues.

No bills have yet reached the governor’s desk.

Among the rejected or shelved measures, Louisiana won’t switch to a closed primary election system for congressional races. The state won’t decriminalize prostitution or ban spanking at public schools. And the state seems unlikely to enact new restrictions and penalties on social media companies for blocking certain content.

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But other proposals are advancing in the session that must end June 10.

Lawmakers appear poised to give final passage to bills tightening the rules for how colleges must handle allegations of sexual assault, harassment and dating violence in response to a scandal at LSU. They seem likely to rework the way Louisiana shops for voting machines, after two failed efforts to replace the state’s voting system. And they are on track to pass new laws aimed at addressing police misconduct and concerns about racial bias in policing.

The main priority for the Legislature’s Republican leadership — a widespread rewrite of Louisiana’s tax laws — is sputtering, however. Many of the bills are stalled in the House amid a lack of agreement about the approach, pushback from special interest groups and other quarrels.

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“I’m a realist, and I’m not really sure how much reform we’re going to get done this session,” Eunice Republican Rep. Phillip DeVillier said to the House tax committee in one recent discussion.

Getting support from two-thirds of the House membership to pass a tax overhaul has been further complicated by an ongoing dispute over the chairman of the House Education Committee, Republican Rep. Ray Garofalo, of St. Bernard Parish.

The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus has called for Garofalo’s removal as chairman because of the Republican lawmaker’s bill to prohibit teaching of “divisive concepts” about racism and sexism. Black lawmakers said the legislation itself is divisive and includes racist elements, and they said they were given the impression the bill wouldn’t even get a hearing because of their concerns.

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Instead, Garofalo’s committee held an acrimonious five-hour discussion of the measure — and Garofalo has refused to say he’s shelving the bill. Rather, he and some other conservative lawmakers have doubled down on the issue.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Republican who won his leadership job with the backing of Black lawmakers, is stuck in a politically tricky position trying to choose between conservative Republicans who want Garofalo to stay and the Legislative Black Caucus who want him to go.

Schexnayder needs votes from both sides to get tax bills passed. The Ascension Parish leader has left Garofalo in his position for now, saying: “We’re all talking and trying to work it out.”

But no approach seems available to satisfy both sides of that debate.

With most tax measures stuck in limbo, the one measure on track to pass is Schexnayder’s business-backed effort to centralize Louisiana’s sales tax collections. If the constitutional change wins legislative passage, however, it still would require a vote of the people — and it would only start the centralization process. Lawmakers would have to work out details in follow-up legislation in a future session.

Beyond finances, lawmakers have found an array of contentious issues over which to fight. Advancing and awaiting further debate are proposals to legalize recreational marijuana, to ban transgender women from female sports teams at schools and to allow people 21 and older to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, already has indicated he’ll veto the transgender sports prohibition and the concealed carry legislation if they reach his desk.

Other proposals winding their way through the process would allow college student athletes to earn money for endorsements and sponsorship deals; prohibit COVID-19 vaccines from being required to enter state facilities; and set the regulations and taxes for sports betting.

In a rare moment, debate over the budget has taken a back seat to other controversies. That’s mainly because the state has none of the financial woes of prior years thanks to an influx of federal coronavirus aid. Budget discussions are about how to spend the billions in cash, and those debates tend to be less heated than talks about how to slash spending.


By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte

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