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Louisiana Punts on Hot Issues Like Abortion, Guns and Taxes

The state’s Republican Legislature failed to pass several bills on controversial social issues, like concealed carry, anti-vaccine and gay rights, instead opting to pass legislation to fund infrastructure projects.

(TNS) — Allow people to carry concealed handguns without a permit? It died in the Louisiana Senate.

Anti-vaccination legislation? Senators failed to advance that, too.

The highly publicized "Don't say gay" measure, modeled on a new Florida law? It perished in the House. So did a high-profile bill that would have jailed women who had abortions.

And both the House and the Senate ignored calls to cut Louisianans' taxes.

Lawmakers in other conservative states have passed legislation this year on hot-button issues like guns, abortion and gay rights, and they have also reduced taxes.

But in the annual session that ended Monday, Louisiana's Republican-majority Legislature punted on all of those measures. What happened?

Several factors were at work, legislators say. One is that Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, opposed these initiatives and could have vetoed them, while in other red states, conservative governors, such as Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas, put their political muscle behind these causes.

With a record surplus on hand, instead of cutting taxes, Louisiana legislators focused on spending the money in ways that Edwards and Republican lawmakers alike agreed on. They used the one-time money for new and existing roads, bridges and water systems across the state and to pay down debt, rather than boost annual expenses and likely set up future budget deficits.

"Everybody realized the state this year had to put the state on a new economic trajectory," said state Rep. Tanner Magee, R- Houma, the speaker pro tem. "We didn't want to waste that opportunity and let other issues become obstacles to that. That was across the board with the House, the Senate and the governor's office. We had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right."

In other words, moderate Republicans — who occupy the middle of Louisiana's political spectrum — held sway this year, with lawmakers giving much of the credit to Senate President Page Cortez, R- Lafayette.

"Rather than fighting over the shiny objects, we were able to focus on the big and important things," said Matthew Block, Edwards' executive counsel.

Before the session began in March, those shiny objects seemed likely to drown out other issues.

Ultra-conservatives spoke confidently of passing measures addressing front-burner topics in America's culture wars: Banning the teaching of critical race theory; passing the "Don't say gay" restriction on teachers; limiting the governor's ability to impose vaccine mandates; and lifting the requirement that people carrying a concealed handgun must have a permit.

None of those measures passed.

"We weren't going to be dragged by the political winds," said Sen. Bret Allain, R- Franklin. "We stuck to what we thought was needed to do. At the end of the day, common-sense legislation and common-sense thinking prevailed."

To be sure, conservatives triumphed on two divisive social issues.

The Fairness in Women's Sports Act, Senate Bill 44, passed with a veto-proof majority, a year after Edwards vetoed a similar measure. Sponsored by Sen. Beth Mizell, R- Franklinton, it will prohibit transgender athletes from competing in high school sports. Edwards let SB44 become law without his signature, calling it "mean-spirited" and "unnecessary" but saying the Legislature would have overridden him had he vetoed it.

The Legislature also passed two strict anti-abortion bills that would take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court, as expected, overturns Roe v. Wade.

Senate Bill 342, sponsored by Sen. Katrina Jackson, D- Monroe, would increase criminal penalties for abortion providers. Senate Bill 388, by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R- Slidell, would allow the prosecution of out-of-state vendors who sell abortion-inducing pills to women in Louisiana.

Edwards, who expressed misgivings about aspects of the bills, hasn't disclosed whether he would sign them, but he has a history of supporting anti-abortion legislation.

In some cases, ultra-conservative measures faced headwinds in part because of their sponsors.

Rep. Ray Garofalo, R- Chalmette, pushed the bills that would prohibit critical race theory, which conservatives see as state-sanctioned racism. Supporters say the theory teaches that racism has been an ingrained part of U.S. history.

But Garofalo remained at odds with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R- Gonzales, after igniting a controversy last year with a remark about slavery and then refused the speaker's request to step aside as chairman of the House Education Committee. Schexnayder removed him.

This year, Garofalo's anti-critical race theory measures — House Bill 1014 and House Bill 747 — didn't even make it out of the Education Committee, the first step in the legislative process.

Rep. Danny McCormick, R- Oil City, won headlines nationally with House Bill 813, which would have allowed prosecutors to jail women who had abortions. But with the state's foremost anti-abortion groups — Louisiana Family Forum and Louisiana Right to Life — saying it went too far, the House killed the bill.

McCormick angered anti-abortion colleagues by insisting that they vote on HB813 — their anti-abortion vote would prompt criticism from traditional allies — even though everyone knew it would lose badly.

"It did start a discussion we should have," an unrepentant McCormick said recently.

The House passed McCormick's House Bill 37, which was similar to a measure passed last year sought by the National Rifle Association that would allow anyone to carry a handgun without undergoing firearms training. Edwards vetoed the 2021 bill.

But HB37 died this month without another vote after a Senate committee agreed to an amendment by Sen. Eddie Lambert, R- Gonzales, to rewrite the bill to instead allow school districts to authorize safety officers, who could include teachers and administrators, to carry concealed handguns in schools. The vote took place in the wake of the Texas school shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers.

"The school shooting changed the conversation on that issue," said Cortez.

The House Education Committee also killed House Bill 837 by Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Houghton, that would have mimicked a Florida measure to ban public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity.

And the Senate bottled up several House measures that would have limited Edwards' ability to impose vaccination mandates, which have caused an outcry among conservatives.

Edwards lowered the temperature in May by withdrawing his order mandating that school kids have a COVID-19 vaccination.

"In a right-leaning state, we avoided going down some of the roads of extremism that have been taken in other conservative states. The No. 1 reason is that we have a moderate Democratic governor who acted as a check on that," said Peter Robins-Brown, executive director of Louisiana Progress, a Baton Rouge group that pushes progressive legislation.

Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, of Lafayette, who heads the Democratic caucus in that chamber, said Cortez and Schexnayder also deserve credit.

"We know where leadership has drawn a line in the sand," Boudreaux said. "They haven't opened the floodgates and said, 'Pour it on.' We're not following the national lead on everything."

After years of tight budgets, legislators had to decide what to do with more than $2 billion in extra money, thanks to the federal stimulus money approved by the Democratic Congress and President Joe Biden and to the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Lawmakers decided not to enact tax cuts, as legislators did in 2007 and 2008 in a similar situation. As Cortez noted, they expect the Legislature in three years will choose not to renew a temporary sales tax of .45 cents per dollar, which will provide $425 million in annual savings for taxpayers.

Lawmakers used the surplus money to tackle traffic and other infrastructure problems.

A new bridge over the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge received $300 million to start the project, which eventually may cost $3 billion. The Legislature and Edwards are spending $200 million on a new bridge over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles; $200 million to extend I-49 south of Lafayette; $450 million to upgrade water and sewer systems around the state; $400 million to pay a post-Hurricane Katrina debt to the federal government for strengthening the New Orleans-area levee system; $500 million to replenish the fund that pays unemployed workers; $175 million to the rainy day fund; at least $100 million to repair existing roads and bridges; plus $100 million to fix up old buildings at public colleges and universities and at state buildings.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana applauded the fiscal conservativism of spending one-time money on one-time needs.

"All of this funding overshadowed those other policy issues," Cortez said. "People wanted to get it right financially, that the federal dollars would be put for roads and bridges and debts. That's not a real fancy thing to do, but you get a better credit rating to have a lower interest rate in the future. If you were in business, you'd want to do that."

Legislators also put $105 million to parochial projects that in many cases received little public scrutiny.

But Cortez said that money — which went to nearly every legislator's district — helped soothe anyone unhappy that their other bills didn't pass.

"Getting that for members is huge," said Magee.

Edwards engendered good will by using the line-item veto on only a handful of legislator projects, amid expectations that he would use that power to punish those who crossed him.

Even McCormick's district received funding to lay a new water line that will improve drinking water in Oil City and its environs.

"It's badly needed," he said.

(c)2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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