BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - After the special session went off the rails, the governor framed the first day of the regular session as a fresh start, attempting to bring lawmakers together. But the challenges, including the budget, lurk in the background.
Arriving on the House floor for the eighth session of his term in office, Governor John Bel Edwards made a plea for cooperation. "I don't want the roadblocks of the special session to hamper us from what's most important: making life better for the people of this great state," Edwards said.
Over the course of the two-week special session, the House fractured into groups as trust between lawmakers dissolved. They failed to pass anything to help fix the fiscal cliff. Now, they have a chance to turn that trust deficit around, but it could be difficult.
Lawmakers are set to debate more than 1,000 bills in the months ahead, touching on everything from changes to TOPS to a boost to the minimum wage. Many could prove divisive. For example, some legislators are calling for new restrictions on gun sales following the school shooting in Florida. Others say that is the wrong way to go.
"I think it's important to have that type of debate," said Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans.
"It's hard to stop people who are mentally deficient from doing things. We need better mental care and that's what we need to focus on," said. Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales.
Speaking before a joint session of the legislature, the governor side-stepped taking a position on the gun debate, instead calling for lawmakers to put politics aside. "Our priority is public safety for our children, and I know that we can have a constructive dialogue here in Louisiana over the course of this session," he said.
In his speech, Edwards did outline some of his legislative priorities. He asked lawmakers to create a council for small businesses to help them remain competitive in Louisiana. One of his goals is eliminating certain licensing requirements for small businesses, including florists. He also once again called on lawmakers to pass "equal pay" legislation and raise the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour over two years. Those efforts have failed in the past. Edwards said 18 states across the U.S. have raised their minimum wage at the beginning of 2018. He added Louisiana remains one of only five states not to have adopted a state minimum wage at all.
Behind the scenes, what was left undone in the special session could come back to haunt lawmakers. The constitution prevents them from raising taxes during regular sessions in even-numbered years, meaning they will have to craft a budget with a projected $700 million in cuts. That could put the TOPS scholarship program, state colleges, and state-backed hospitals on the chopping block.
The governor believes a budget like that cannot pass, while others say they must pass something. "I think it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars for us to come up here and not pass a budget," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
The regular session is slated to last for three months. However, the governor and other state leaders want them to wrap up the session early before immediately coming in for a special session, where they can pass taxes to help fill in the budget gap.