House agrees to vote on special session

10 23, 2012 by American Press

A Thibodaux lawmaker hit the first benchmark Tuesday in his effort to revisit Gov. Bobby Jindal's recent budget cuts in a November special session.

Thirty-nine House members, Republicans and Democrats, have signed onto supporting the idea, meeting the 35-signature threshold for one chamber to force a vote on the session pushed by Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, an independent.

Attention shifts to the Senate, where he needs to get 13 supporters by Friday to trigger the mail-in balloting of the Legislature.

Richard and supporters of the special session are frustrated that Jindal has shuttered a state prison in Calcasieu Parish, announced closure of a state-run psychiatric hospital in St. Tammany Parish and made deep cuts to the LSU-run public hospital system across the state — all without legislative input.

Richard filed the House signatures with the clerk's office Tuesday. He was joined by three Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. John Bel Edwards, head of the House Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Patricia Smith, leader of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus.

"It's a basic question: Is this institution going to stand up as a separate, independent, equal branch of government or not in light of the threats that we have to fundamental institutions that protect the people of Louisiana?" said Edwards, D-Amite, who lives in an area that has seen its LSU hospital hit with hefty reductions.

The special session remains a long-shot bid in a state where lawmakers traditionally follow the lead of the governor. Jindal opposes the idea, and supporters of the special session Tuesday accused the governor of holding up state construction projects to stymie the effort.

The cuts came after lawmakers wrapped up their work on the $25 billion budget for the current fiscal year. Since then, the Republican governor has slashed spending by hundreds of millions of dollars, largely in response to a drop in federal Medicaid funding after lawmakers went home.

Richard faces opposition from House Speaker Chuck Kleckley and Senate President John Alario, both Republicans who gained their jobs with the governor's support. They say a 15-day session would waste taxpayer dollars.

Alario, R-Westwego, has said Richard hasn't explained how he'd balance the budget differently if lawmakers reversed Jindal's cuts, a criticism that several lawmakers have lodged about the effort even while they complain about the governor's handling of the reductions.

"We're going to have a plan if we get to session," Richard said.

The lawmaker said Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, is trying to rally votes in the Senate and has gotten at least half the signatures needed there.

If 13 senators agree in writing to a vote on the special session, Richard then would need a majority of the members in each chamber — 53 in the House and 20 in the Senate — to return a ballot calling for the session.

The Legislature has called itself into session only once since the modern state constitution was enacted nearly four decades ago, for the required task of redistricting and only then with the support of the governor.

"It's history in the making to get this far," Richard said.