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Session change bills serve LA legislators, not people

As Louisiana struggles through another tough budget balancing exercise, proposals that could ease difficulties related to that also include undesirable side effects that disqualify these from changing the state’s Constitution.

Two bills, SB 25 by state Sen. JP Morrell and HB 1139 by state Rep. Dee Richard, seek to amend Louisiana’s Constitution to remove the present distinction between regular sessions in odd- and even-numbered years. Presently, during even-numbered years the Legislature cannot consider tax matters plus its members face filing limits on bills (but not on prefiling) in a regular session also shorter than these sessions in odd-numbered years, those which having no such restrictions.

The bills do not differ much. Both would make session lengths identical to the even-numbered standard of a maximum of 45 days meeting in no more than 60 and have no material restrictions on legislation. Morrell’s would keep the earlier start date of the longer odd-numbered sessions, while Richard’s would continue session commencement at the later even-numbered time.

Both succeeded in passing out of their respective chamber’s committees tasked with this subject matter. But the Senate turned away Morrell’s measure despite assertions that it could save the state money. Because of revenue shortfalls and some unanticipated expenditures earlier this year the Legislature went into special session to hike taxes, which it could have done during the current regular session without the constitutional limitation. Further, it may return for another after the regular session’s close to do more of the same. A special session costs at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars in extra payments to legislators and staff, and for supplies and utilities, and the cost escalates as its length increases.

Left unsaid, and perhaps a stronger motivation than legislators will admit publicly, is that these extra sessions disrupt legislators’ lives. Constitutionally defined as a part-time job, even as several years ago legislators greedily tried to promote its pay to full-time, many legislators chafe at having to hold down full-time occupations and serve in the Legislature. Special sessions take away from that time and interferes with plans in the personal lives. That largely explains why, if they want to eliminate the session distinctions, they chose the shorter durations, even though theoretically with the alteration they would increase the amount of business they would conduct.

A bad, self-serving reason arguing for change may offset an ostensibly good one, but a negative consequence additionally should sink the whole enterprise. By removing an extra hurdle to raising taxes, in that one must go to the bother and expense of a special session, resorting to hiking these becomes that much easier at the expense of alternatives such as making government operate more efficiently and/or reducing spending. Especially with Louisiana’s political culture that encourages using state government primarily as a tool to redistribute wealth, the rules of the game must fight explicitly every temptation to extract more from the people to pass along to favored constituencies.

The current arrangement diminishes the appeal of increased taxation, and that should remain so. The more incentives that point lawmakers to right-sizing government, the better. Richard’s bill remains alive and headed to the House floor, where it should merit a fate similar to the Senate’s treatment of Morrell’s.

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