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Session delivers mixed results to business community

June 10, 2019
Originally posted on Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

The business community came away with both wins and losses during the recent legislative session, which Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack describes as “a good news, bad news session.”  

On the plus side, lawmakers approved $700 million in transportation infrastructure spending—including $140 million for two key projects in the Capital Region, and a statewide ridesharing framework for services such as Uber and Lyft. They also fought off efforts to raise the minimum wage and other employer mandates proposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, and successfully amended a bill in the final hours of the session that would require the state to return taxpayer money from a tax that is later declared unconstitutional.

On the downside, efforts to enact comprehensive tort reform proved unsuccessful. Lawmakers also failed to identify a recurring source of transportation infrastructure funding—like a gas tax—and to streamline ITEP, which was being pushed by the LABI.

Beyond that, lawmakers failed to make progress towards addressing comprehensive fiscal reform or agreeing to convene a Constitutional Convention. But such overarching measures weren’t expected to get serious consideration in an election-year session.

“We’re not worse off than we were before the session and in some respects we’re better off,” says Liz Smith, BRAC’s vice president for economic competitiveness. “When you have a session in an election year, legislators want to be both visible and completely uncontroversial so they have not taken on the huge systemic concerns the business community and citizenry have.”

For the Capital Region, in particular, it was also a mixed-results session. Among the measures BRAC successfully supported was a bill that will make it less risky for developers to invest in blighted properties and a “good government” bill that will make it easier for the Baton Rouge police chief to promote officers based on merit instead of just seniority.  

Other local wins for the Capital Region were bills laying out the framework for growing hemp, which Smith says will benefit rural areas of the region, and a measure that enables charter schools to finance projects using tax-exempt bonds, putting them on an equal footing with other public schools.   

Among the disappointments at the local level was lawmakers’ refusal to extend the historic building tax credits program—a key incentive in historic renovations—beyond 2021, when it is set to expire.  

“That program has really helped revitalize a lot of areas so hopefully the Legislature will come back and address this at a later date, before the program expires,” Smith says.

Though lawmakers failed to take up some of the long-standing issues on the LABI and BRAC wish list, Waguespack and others are optimistic that the fall election season will be an opportunity to begin emphasizing the importance of such issues with candidates.

Tort reform, in particular, he believes, is an issue whose time is coming.

“This will be a huge issue in the elections,” he says. “For the first time in decades, the Capitol has been put on notice that tort reform is coming. I think the status quo figured out a way to kill it this time, but their days are numbered.”