The Investigators: How much did Louisiana's two special sessions cost taxpayers?

The Investigators: Worth the Costs?
House of Representatives (Source: WAFB)
House of Representatives (Source: WAFB)
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Efforts to fix the state's budget woes ended up costing Louisiana taxpayers nearly $2 million.

During the first half of 2016, Gov. John Bel Edwards called lawmakers in for two special sessions aimed at remedying the state's budget shortfalls. At the start of the year, the budget for 2016-2017 alone was estimated to be short $2 billion.

After the first special session in February and March, lawmakers failed to advance enough tax and revenue measures to meet the governor's goal, leaving the state with a $600 million hole for the current year.

"I wish we had gotten our business done during the first special session for a lot of reasons," said Edwards, as the second special session got underway.

However, lawmakers stalled on many of the governor's proposals once again. After two sessions, they ultimate left the state short more than $300 million.

Nevertheless, whether they get the job done or not, for every day lawmakers spend at the Capitol, it costs taxpayers money.

For example, documents obtained by the 9News Investigators show that over the course of the 25-day first special session, the House and Senate ran up costs totaling about $1.3 million.

A large chunk of that comes from per diems – a $157 pay out to lawmakers for each day they are at the Capitol. Overall, House members received a total of $418,091 and Senate lawmakers received $153,075 during the first session. Added together, that means about $571,000 was paid out to lawmakers during the first special session.

On top of that, legislative staff members were paid for overtime and extra hours, totaling $228,000. Printing bills and agendas also carried a price tag that added up to about $32,000. On some days, the House alone spent thousands of dollars printing documents.

However, once the first special session was over, the governor called them back in to session again in attempts to fill in the remaining shortfall.

"Our students can't wait. Our hospitals can't wait. Our disabled citizens can't wait," said the governor during a speech kicking off that second special session.

The second session was shorter than the first – only 18 days in length. During that time, documents obtained by the 9News investigators show that the Senate spent about $196,000, or about $11,000 a day.

The House clerk is still working to add up costs for his chamber, but those per diem payments to lawmakers alone should run close to $300,000, meaning that the second special session cost tax payers at least half a million dollars.

"Hopefully the governor will take that into account the next time he decides to have multiple special sessions or any more special sessions in general,
because when we're up here, it gets expensive. It gets expensive for the taxpayers - both the cost of us being here and the bills that we pass," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

Adding everything together, between the $1.3 million cost of the first special session and the $500,000 or more spent on the second special session,
efforts to fix the budget this year ended up costing at least $1.8 million.

When asked about the price tag at the start of the second special session, the governor defended his decision to call them in for the sessions by
pointing to what was accomplished. All in all, lawmakers ended up raising about $1.5 billion worth of revenue for this fiscal year alone during the two sessions, saving state programs from big funding reductions.

"The cost, while certainly not insignificant, certainly isn't so high that we should not call ourselves into session to fix the problem," the governor said.

The reasons lawmakers had to come in for special sessions in the first place is because of a rule only allowing lawmakers to deal with revenue raising
measures during a regular session in odd-numbered years.

During this year's regular session, Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, sponsored a bill that would have change that, allowing those votes to happen every year. That bill failed to get out of the Senate.

"Had that measure been successful, rather than be in session for six months, we would have been in for three months. We would have resolved these
problems. Instead we had a special on the front of a regular and a special on the back of the regular, and we're not very far from where we started," Morrell said.

"I like the way we do it now. I think every other year gives the opportunity for when a bill passes to see whether it actually generates any revenue and whether it actually does anything," Henry said.

The full cost report for the second special session from the House is expected to be released later this summer.

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