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Where we’re heading: New Orleans lawmakers discuss their plans for the legislative session in March

February 3, 2020
Originally posted on Gambit

The year 1995 looms large among veteran Louisiana politicos — it’s when voters imposed term limits on state legislators. From that point on, lawmakers could serve only three consecutive terms in their respective chambers — but term-limited House members may run for Senate seats, and vice versa, without limit.

In 2019, the impact of the now quarter-century-old constitutional amendment was particularly prominent, effectively ridding the Legislature of just about anyone who was around to see term limits implemented in the first place.

The annual legislative session that begins March 9 will see a wave of new faces — 55 in all — among the Legislature’s 144 members. Forty-five of the 105 House members will be newbies, along with 20 of the 39 Senate members — 10 of them ascending from the lower chamber.

In Orleans Parish, new representatives include House Democrats Mack Cormier (whose district is mainly Plaquemines Parish), Aimee Adatto Freeman, Jason Hughes, Mandie Landry, Candace Newell and Matthew Willard. New Orleans Democrats Joseph Bouie and Jimmy Harris, along with Metairie Republican Cameron Henry, all moved from the House to the Senate.

For veterans, the issues that await all lawmakers will sound familiar. For the freshmen, it will be a trial by fire. For all of them, there will be no shortage of challenges.

Here’s what to expect this legislative session, according to both new and returning members of the New Orleans delegation.

Early childhood education

Throughout his re-election campaign, Gov. John Bel Edwards touted early childhood education as his No. 1 priority for his second term, and the New Orleans delegation is fully on board. New investments are being made at the city, state and federal levels, but funding remains far below recommended levels.

The state currently offers a Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which helps low-income parents who are working or attending school pay for child care. A funding increase last year helped get 1,400 children off the waiting list for the program, but 3,000 others remain on the list.

A federal grant awarded to the Louisiana Department of Education will help with that, though, bringing in more than $11 million each year through 2022 to create 600 new day care spaces for children in low-income families from birth to age 3.

The City of New Orleans also invested $3 million in public day care last November, with expectations that the state will match that funding this year.

Studies show that early education has lifelong effects because  90% of brain development occurs by the time a child is 5 years old, with 80% occurring by age 3. While there’s widespread agreement on the importance of early childhood education, expect debate over how the issue should be addressed — particularly whether they should prioritize getting children off the CCAP waiting list or increasing the amount of funding per seat.

“That's always going to be an ongoing challenge because there's data that suggests that the seats that we are appropriating for, we're still not spending enough,” says Rep. Royce Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat first elected to the Legislature in 2018. “Mostly we all agree that this is something we should invest in, but the question becomes: At what dollar amount?”

Hughes, who succeeds Rep. John Bagneris in representing House District 100 in New Orleans East, says he plans to be “laser-focused” on early childhood education in his first term.

“At the end of the day, budgets have to reflect priorities,” Hughes says. “At a time when we are about to invest $400 million into renovating a Superdome, we certainly must do more and step up our game around investing in human capital.”

Housing and infrastructure

At a local level, delegation members cited rising housing costs and property taxes in the New Orleans area as two of their main concerns. Property values have skyrocketed since 2015, partially fueled by a proliferation of short-term rentals. Thousands of residents saw a significant increase in their property values — more than 200% in some cases — during last year’s citywide property assessment.

A 2019 state constitutional amendment now requires that higher taxes based on assessments be phased in over four years if a property’s value increases by more than 50%. Community advocacy group Together New Orleans estimates that more than 5,000 households will see their taxes rise by more than $1,000 over the next several years.

Legislators are looking at what else they can do to mitigate costs for residents. Willard, who is taking Bouie’s place in representing House District 97 after Bouie moved to the Senate, says he will bring a bill to cap the percentage a property’s value assessment can go up in a given year.

At the state level, Duplessis says the best strategy to address the city’s affordable housing crisis is to give local governments freedom to decide their own approaches. “I think a lot of these policies all boil down to local control,” he says. “Every housing market is different. New Orleans is different from New Iberia and New Roads.”

Louisiana voters rejected a constitutional amendment last year that would have allowed New Orleans to exempt from property taxes some or all of the assessed value of a property with up to 15 residential units as a method of encouraging the creation of affordable housing units. In January, the City Council approved its own set of rules to give property tax incentives for developers of low-cost housing.

And, with roads in disrepair and ongoing crises with the city’s sewerage and water system, New Orleans legislators plan to work with Mayor LaToya Cantrell to obtain additional funds for infrastructure projects — and hope to secure some federal dollars as well.

Minimum wage

Louisiana workers haven’t seen a minimum wage increase since 2009, when the federal government last increased it to $7.25 an hour. In 2019, Edwards rallied for the state to establish its own minimum wage at $9, upping his request from his original $8.50. (If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 2009, it would be roughly $8.68 in today’s dollars.)

The push has come in several forms. Some want the state to set its own minimum wage at a higher rate; some want to allow local governments to set their own minimum wage; and others suggest a constitutional amendment to allow Louisiana voters decide the issue. 

Sen. Troy Carter, a returning New Orleans Democrat, has fought for an minimum wage increase for years. He says he will introduce a combination of those approaches again this year. He also plans to present legislation to call a referendum giving voters a say on the issue — without the two-thirds legislative approval required of proposed constitutional amendments.

So far, years of efforts by Democrats have fallen flat, despite overwhelming public support among voters in both political parties. The main obstacle to getting the minimum wage increased, Carter says, is opposition from one of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups — the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). LABI President Stephen Waguespack said last year that an increase to the minimum wage would be “a gut punch” to the economy and would hurt small businesses.

“For whatever reason, they have made this a cause celebre for them to be opposed to increasing the minimum wage,” Carter says. “For the life of me, I can't understand why.”

A 2019 survey by LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab found that 81% of Louisiana residents support an $8.50 minimum wage, and 59% support an increase to $15 an hour. “The public has spoken,” Carter says. “We just need our elected officials to follow suit.”

Equal pay

Similarly, the New Orleans delegation will aid Edwards in his fight to address Louisiana’s gender pay gap, which is the largest in the country. That fight also failed to gain traction in the Legislature during Edwards’ first term.

Current Louisiana law makes it illegal to “intentionally pay wages to an employee at a rate less than that of another employee of the opposite sex for equal work on jobs in which their performance requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility and which are performed under similar working conditions.” But a 2019 study showed that for every $1 men in the state made working full time, women still only made 69 cents.

One way Democrats will try to close the gap is by introducing (again) a bill to eliminate “pay secrecy” — employers banning or discouraging employees from discussing wages. They have tried this in recent years, to no avail. Willard campaigned on the issue and counts it among his top priorities this session.

“You could be doing the exact same work as a young man, you could even have more experience than him, and he could be making twice what you make — and you have no clue unless y'all talk about your pay,” Willard says.

The federal National Labor Relations Act already prohibits pay secrecy, but experts say many employers aren’t aware that's the case. And there are exceptions in the federal law carved out for small companies, agricultural workers and others. On its website, LABI says it supports men and women getting paid the same for the same work but says a new state law is not needed for this to happen.

Criminal justice reform

Months after a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul package passed in 2017, Louisiana shed its title as the incarceration capital of the nation. But after Oklahoma released nearly 500 people from prison in October, Louisiana went back to the top of that list.

“That means that we have more work to do,” Duplessis says, “not just to go back from one to two, but to make significant progress to where we're no longer in contention for being at the top.”

Areas of discussion likely will center around policies for those who re-enter society after serving a prison sentence, including the process of expungement, in which an arrest record or criminal conviction can be erased from public view.

Currently, filing a motion for expungement costs $350 — $400 for a DWI — not including potential lawyer’s fees. Duplessis says several of his colleagues are considering bills to “streamline” the process and decrease costs.

Another potential hot topic will be the state’s care of prisoners who are old, sick or dying. As part of the 2017 judicial overhaul, a medical furlough program was implemented, allowing the release of prisoners who are terminally ill or disabled and no longer deemed a threat to society. The following year, legislators passed a law preventing anyone convicted of first-degree murder from being eligible for the program.

Legislators may look at reintroducing a bill to implement a policy known as “geriatric parole,” which makes prisoners eligible for parole if they are at least 50 years old and have served a minimum of 30 years of their sentences. Those on parole are eligible for Medicare, while those in prison aren’t. Furloughing these most expensive inmates shifts the cost of their health care from the state to the federal government.

New Orleans legislators say they anticipate bipartisan support for further criminal justice reform. The state’s reform package served as a model for similar measures passed at the federal level in 2018 with President Donald Trump’s support.

Tort reform

Blasting the state’s high car insurance rates, some politicians made “tort reform” a prominent subject in their 2019 campaigns. They say changing policies surrounding individuals’ ability to sue companies and their insurers, such as in personal injury claims, will help lower individual rates.

But many experts, politicians and insurance companies say the components being discussed — such as sending more trials to juries instead of to judges and doubling the time parties have to file a lawsuit to provide them with more time to settle outside of court — won’t lower car insurance rates. 

Part of the problem is that 40% of Louisiana drivers only have bare-bones insurance policies, which makes it more likely a party will have to sue because insurance doesn’t cover all injuries and damages. Furthermore, between 13% and 15% of drivers in the state are uninsured.

Another piece of the conversation is that insurance rates partially depend on credit ratings. Reliance on this method is a disadvantage to people of color and poor people, who often are targets for predatory loans that ruin credit scores.

“We know that this conversation around tort reform is going to happen,” Duplessis says. “But we need to make sure we're talking about it in a way where we're truthful and honest. We need to focus on fixing our roads, fixing our bridges, fixing our infrastructure (and) getting people good jobs, so that they can afford to pay even for a minimum policy.”

Other issues

Newell, who represents District 99 after Harris won his Senate seat without opposition, says she has already started researching ways to address a lack of grocery stores in New Orleans East. The issue of a food desert in the area is one she highlighted during her campaign.

She cites a Walmart on Bullard Avenue and a Winn Dixie on Chef Menteur Highway as two of the only grocery stores that service the area. The scarcity makes it harder for people who rely on public transportation to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Tax breaks could help motivate local businesses to invest in the area, she says.

 “The money is there because the people are there,” Newell says, “and [the businesses are] going to be providing a service.”

In November, Freeman, who won the House District 98 seat vacated by term-limited Rep. Neil Abramson, announced her plans to introduce a bill to address the so-called “tampon tax.” The bill would allow local governments to exempt feminine hygiene products — pads, tampons and menstrual cups — as well as diapers from local sales tax.

The idea was suggested to her by City Council President and former Rep. Helena Moreno and former Sen. JP Morrell, whose attempt to exempt the same items from state sales tax failed last year. Because it is not a “fiscal” year for the Legislature — lawmakers can only consider new taxes, exemptions and other money matters in odd-numbered years — Freeman can’t reintroduce Morrell’s bill until next year — but she can sponsor legislation to give local governments control over whether to tax the items.

“As much as I'd like to see us have a pro-choice bill passed in the state, I'm very realistic that that is not the current option based on what I know of the body that I'm going to be part of,” Freeman says, recalling a meeting with Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, in which he told her she was probably one of about 11 House members who supports abortion rights.

“As important to me as that is, I know it's not able to be the defining issue, so I'd rather make women's issues like prenatal care, early childhood education, (and) making sure that women have access to cures for cancer (the defining issue).”

Dynamics at play

Elections always change the political environment at the state Capitol. Edwards is in his second term, so he no longer has to worry about re-election. On the other hand, those eyeing a bid for the governor’s seat in 2023 will look for chances to preen politically to bolster their future cases to voters.

Republicans increased their stronghold in both chambers, obtaining a veto-proof supermajority (two-thirds) in the Senate and coming within two seats of that mark in the House. A political action committee led by U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy and state Attorney General Jeff Landry (both Republicans) targeted Democrats in rural areas and moderate Republicans to form a more conservative Legislature.

However, the results of the House speaker’s race last month suggest that despite being severely outnumbered, Democrats — including the governor — and Independents won’t be written out of the process entirely. The majority of House Republicans voted for Albany Republican Rep. Sherman Mack, but a coalition of 23 Republicans, all 35 Democrats and both Independents propelled Gonzales Republican Rep. Clay Schexnayder to victory.

“At the end of the day, I think the results spoke volumes of what the public expects,” says Hughes, who has known Schexnayder for nearly a decade. “You had Democrats, Republicans and Independents that all decided who the Speaker of the House was going to be.

“I think it's a reflection of the mandate from the public, given that they elected a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor. There is a clear mandate that they want us to work together. They do not want us to become Washington. They do not want four years of dysfunction.”