The Louisiana Capitol Building, April 8, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).
Lawmakers approved a business-friendly tax policy overhaul and prioritized transportation funding over most other budget items in the 2021 regular lawmaking session that ended last week.
The Republican-dominated Legislature executed a conservative, business-oriented agenda, the likes of which the corporate community hasn’t been able to get passed in years. Democrats, despite holding the governor’s office, didn’t do much to push back on the proposals.
Here are the winners and losers of the 2021 legislative session:
WINNERS: Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder
By working together, Cortez, R-Lafayette, and Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, accomplished all of their major goals this session, including those that previous Republican lawmakers hadn’t been able to get across the finish line for decades.
The Legislature voted to put an overhaul of the tax code on the ballot in the fall for voters and took steps toward centralizing the state’s sales tax collection — a long-sought goal of the big business community and one that Cortez and Schexnayder embraced. Cortez also managed to lock down a long-term funding source for transportation projects and get his framework for sports betting passed without much of a fight.
Cortez and Schexnayder also sent the state’s operating budget plan to Gov. John Bel Edwards early enough that the governor wasn’t able to make many sweeping changes without risking a budget veto override.
The Senate and House have — in recent years — largely worked at odds with each other, making it harder to push through any legislative priorities. In Louisiana, the governor — regardless of who it is — has largely set the state’s agenda. But by acting as a team, Cortez and Schexnayder flipped that script a bit — taking more control over the policy debates — and accomplished more than many of their predecessors have managed.
WINNER: Louisiana Association of Business and Industry
As mentioned above, the big business community — represented by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry — saw several of its long-sought goals accomplished.
The corporate community wants the state tax code overhauled — something lawmakers agreed to put before the voters as constitutional amendments. The proposal appears to benefit the business community more than regular taxpayers.
Big business also wants to centralize Louisiana’s sales tax collections. Lawmakers — for the first time in years — took steps toward making that happen.
The state’s budget plan also reflected many of the priorities of the business community.
Louisiana has hundreds of millions of additional dollars to spend in the budget cycle that begins July 1 — thanks to the federal government giving out lots of funding for COVID-19 relief and economic recovery. Lawmakers voted to use large chunks of that money to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund and transportation projects — both of which benefit the business community.
The Legislature also voted to divert money that currently goes to education and health care services for transportation projects starting in 2023 — a plan the business community supported.
Additionally, lawmakers raised the amount of state unemployment benefits very little. Had they voted for a larger unemployment benefits increase, the business community would have been responsible for covering the cost.
The Democrats have lost seats and leverage since the beginning of 2020 — and it showed this session.
The most ambitious aspects of their agenda — doing away with extra legal protections for police and easing the criminal record expungement process — failed to pass. They also only managed to increase Louisiana’s state unemployment benefits — among the most meager in the country — by $28 per week.
Democratic priorities also seemed to be largely absent from the discussion over how to spend $1.6 billion in federal COVID-19 recovery money. Much of the money is either going to transportation projects, ports or employer relief. There was no discussion of putting more money into housing relief programs, education enrichment, job training or direct payments to workers.
The Democrats did score one large legislative victory. Lawmakers voted to eliminate jail and prison time for people caught with modest amounts of marijuana statewide.
WINNERS AND LOSERS: Women
Lawmakers passed some legislation aimed at helping women, such as removing the state sales tax from feminine hygiene products and diapers. They also approved bills to strengthen laws around sexual misconduct at university campuses and give victims of domestic violence more control over their housing.
But a couple of measures that would have predominantly helped women also failed. Legislation to expand the definition of what is considered domestic violence failed after its sponsor, Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, threatened Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, on the House floor.
Another piece of legislation that would given women more right to sue for damages over sexual misconduct was watered down to exclude sexual harassment. It now only applies to sexual assault.
WINNERS: Louisiana Casinos and Racetracks
When lawmakers approved sports wagering this session, they gave preference to existing casino and racetrack operators who want to hold a sports wagering license — including the licenses for online and mobile wagering. That will give them a huge leg up in this emerging market.
After three years, lawmakers also finally agreed to let a casino license in the Bossier area be transferred to a site in Slidell so long as St. Tammany Parish voters approve the plan.
Additionally, lawmakers voted to allow hundreds of new slot-machine devices to operate in Louisiana for the benefit of the horse racing industry. Revenue from these devices is expected to increase purse sizes for the horse racing industry, thereby making those events more competitive. Cortez is a backer of the horse racing industry.
WINNERS: Riverboat pilots
Riverboat pilots who operate along the Mississippi in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans area managed to stave off an effort to allow industry groups to have a bigger say over their salaries — which are currently in the high six figures — and other parts of their operations. These pilots essentially regulate themselves currently. Even an effort just to study their governing structure failed to pass either chamber.
LOSERS: Unemployed folks
In a deal struck with Republican lawmakers, Edwards said he will likely end the federally-funded $300 per week in extra unemployment benefits at the end of July. This was done in exchange for support to increase state unemployment benefits — which top out at $247 per week — by an additional $28 weekly starting in 2022. The bottom line is the state’s unemployment support will continue to remain far lower than the national average.
WINNERS AND LOSERS: Teachers
The lawmakers included an $800 raise for public school teachers and $400 raise for public school support staff in their budget, but the teachers and other employees had been hoping for more. Legislators had initially discussed a $1,000 raise for teachers and $500 raise for school support staff, but ended up backing off that proposal. They said the extra funding would cost $20 million and needed to be used for other priorities.
LSU entered the lawmaking session engulfed in a huge sexual misconduct and domestic violence scandal, but that didn’t result in much blowback against the university.
No major administrator or staff member has been fired, and the Legislature didn’t withhold funding for LSU. Higher education, overall, received an increase in funding, and university faculty across the state saw a pay raise.
In fact, LSU Athletics — where much of the sexual misconduct took place — saw a major piece of legislation it wanted passed. Lawmakers voted for a “Name, Image, Likeness” bill that allows athletes to earn money off of their personal brand. LSU wanted the proposal adopted for recruiting purposes.
The LSU Agricultural Center has been faced with its own set of questions over how allegations of sexual misconduct against faculty have been handled. Nevertheless, LSU AgCenter received $9.8 million in additional funding, including $7 million for the renovation of the Parker Agricultural Coliseum on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus..
WINNER: State Police
Like LSU, Louisiana State Police has been engulfed in a scandal — this one involving how state troopers in North Louisiana have treated Black motorists. The State Police tried to cover up state troopers’ beating of Ronald Greene, who ended up dying in police custody. There are other allegations that troopers in the Monroe area have assaulted Black drivers.
Despite this scandal, State Police leaders did not face public questioning from lawmakers about the allegations of excessive force. In fact, the agency got additional money for a state police academy class — to train more troopers — and is expected to get additional funding and staff to oversee the regulation of sports wagering.
State Police also killed a piece of legislation it didn’t like — an automated criminal record expungement proposal. The agency scuttled the legislation, in spite of it having broad, bipartisan support.
LOSER: The next governor
Lawmakers took actions in this session that could box in the next governor financially in 2025. The Legislature voted to divert at least $150 million annually — as of 2025 — from the state vehicle sales tax to transportation projects. The money currently goes to support education, health care, prisons and other government services.
The state’s sales tax rate is supposed to drop from 4.45 percent to 4 percent — costing the state about $500 million annually — in 2025 as well. That money will also come from the fund that supports education, health care, prisons and other government services.
A loss of $750 million dollars out of that fund happening in the same year could make it difficult for the next governor to balance the state spending plan.
WINNERS AND LOSERS: Marijuana smokers
Lawmakers voted down marijuana legalization, but marijuana smokers made some other inroads during the session. The Legislature passed a decriminalization bill that eliminates jail and prison time for people caught with a moderate amount of marijuana. The Legislature also approved legalizing a smokable form of medical marijuana.
WINNER: State Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro
McFarland revived the Conservative Caucus in the Louisiana House — focused on gun rights, abortion restrictions and conservative fiscal policy. The invitation-only group now has over 40 members and could be a powerful force if the members stick together on issues.
McFarland, who serves as the Conservative Caucus’ chairman, said he and other members were frustrated by the splintered nature of the House Republican caucus, which could rarely reach a consensus on issues.
McFarland, who owns a business in the logging industry, also helped secure $10 million of federal COVID-19 recovery funding for timber and logging companies who had problems during the pandemic.
There was an effort to outlaw — or at least pare down — the use of non-compete clauses in physicians contracts. Ochsner Health System, in particular, is making it difficult for doctors to leave their network for another health care system in Louisiana, according to The Advocate. Physicians who wish to work somewhere else often have to leave the state altogether.
In the end, Ochsner and rural hospitals who support the use of non-compete clauses managed to fend off an effort to ban those types of contracts. The current system will stay in place.
WINNER: Terrebonne Parish
Legislators have added millions of dollars of local pet projects into the state spending plan. This includes at over $5 millions for Terrebonne Parish, which is represented by two legislative leaders — House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee and House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue. That money is going to an elementary school, the local levee system, Houma’s downtown development organization and a local nonprofit that works on wetland health.
WINNER: Lafayette Parish
Lafayette is receiving $13.5 million for road improvements in next year’s spending plan. The University of Louisiana – Lafayette and local Lafayette nonprofits also received millions of dollars in state funding this year. Cortez and House Ways and Means Chairman Stuart Bishop — who controls the state’s construction budget — both represent Lafayette.
LOSER: Race relations in the Louisiana House
A protracted fight over whether Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, should stay on as House Education Committee chairman after filing legislation to ban the teaching of systemic racism and sexism strained relationships between Black and White legislators in the House for weeks.
In testifying in favor of his bill, Garofalo had stated that there was a good side of slavery. He circled back a couple of moments later to say he misspoke and that he didn’t think anything about slavery was positive, but he refused to apologize for the comment later. Garofalo wouldn’t acknowledge he had offended anyone.
Soon, Garofalo refused to handle committee business normally or testify publicly for his other bills. He appeared to be avoiding coming to the microphone on the House floor because he didn’t want to answer questions about his “good” slavery comment. Schexnayder eventually removed him from the Education Committee chairman job, but only after Garofalo ignored the House Speaker’s advice on how to calm the situation.
These tensions soaked into other issues though. The House had an intense debate over whether “Southern Nights” by Allen Toussaint should be Louisiana’s official state song — or a state cultural song. White lawmakers from North Louisiana were particularly concerned about “Southern Nights” being put on the same platform as “You Are My Sunshine” by former Gov. Jimmie Davis. The controversy eventually died down — “Southern Nights” has been declared an official state cultural song — but it took weeks to resolve.
Lawmakers also had strained debates over the lack of Black riverboat pilots — and what type of consequences law enforcement officers should face when they use excessive force. Legislation to prevent employment discrimination over Black hairstyles brought up long discussions about the differences between Black and White women’s hair.
The tensions died down toward the end of session but made it difficult for the House to function well during the first few weeks the lawmakers were meeting.
WINNER: Survivors of Child Abuse
Edwards and the Legislature have approved a new law that will allow more adult victims of child abuse to sue over that abuse. It became effective upon the signature of the governor.
The new law removes the time limit for civil lawsuits over child abuse. Until this week, a person had to file a suit alleging child abuse before their 28th birthday.
This law also establishes a three-year “lookback window” that would allow any adult victims of child abuse who ran out of time to sue under the old law to now file a lawsuit. The new law would essentially become retroactive — but only for three years — under this legislation.
Similar provisions in other states have put financial stress on the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts and other large institutions with a history of child abuse.
LOSER: Gov. John Bel Edwards
The Legislature passed a number of bills that are giving the governor pause. He expressed reservations about approved legislation that would prevent employer vaccine mandates; imply an abortion partially administered by medication could be reversed; ban transgender woman and girls from participating in women and girls sports and allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
The governor also went on at great length about his concern that lawmakers had voted to shift at least $150 million from a fund that supports higher education and health care to transportation projects in 2025. He said he worried that would leave a hole in the state budget that could not easily be filled.
The governor is in somewhat of a precarious political position. If he vetoes too many of the bills passed by lawmakers, he could risk an attempt at veto overrides. Some of the measures he doesn’t like passed with enough votes that an override would be possible. So he may want to be careful not to reject too many measures — and anger too many lawmakers — such that lawmakers would return to Baton Rouge in July for an unprecedented veto override session.
WINNERS: Tax assessors
The Legislature approved a new law that allows all tax assessors to give themselves the equivalent of 15 percent of their salaries annually as a car allowance.
Assessors earn between $135,000 and $172,000 per year — meaning their vehicle allowance would be an additional $20,000 to $26,000 per year, according to the Associated Press. Tax assessors in eight parishes already have this allowance. The bill, if signed by the governor, would allow all tax assessors to access it. The Legislative Fiscal Office estimates the proposal could cost taxpayers an extra $1 million per year.
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