Louisiana's legislative Session 2021: Marijuana, sports betting, tax reform, roads
Louisiana lawmakers' eight-week sprint of a Legislative Session included some historic measures from the decriminalization of marijuana to implementing sports betting to tax reform proposals to a plan to address the state's crumbling infrastructure.
In the end, most members of the Republican-dominated Legislature and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards were generally satisfied with the outcome, though that congeniality could end as the Deep South's only governor primes his veto pen in the coming days.
"All in all a very good effort," Edwards said late Thursday following the end of the session.
Houma Republican House Speaker Pro-tem Tanner Magee was even happier after sleeping on it, calling it the "most productive" session in his tenure.
"First time more real reform passed than I expected going in," he said in a Friday morning Tweet. "Usually it's less. Woke up exhausted but optimistic for our future."
Marijuana acceptance accelerates in conservative Louisiana
Two major marijuana bills — one to expand the medical pot program by adding smokable cannabis as an option for patients and a second to decriminalize possession of small amounts of weed — won final passage.
Edwards has indicated he will sign House Bill 391 by Magee to allow smokable pot in the medical program and he seemed to be leaning toward signing House Bill 652 by Shreveport Democratic Rep. Cedric Glover to decriminalize the drug.
Marijuana in Louisiana:The latest on decriminalization and simple possession in state
"I'm interested in signing it," Edwards said of Glover's bill, but hedged by saying he's still reviewing the measure.
"One thing I think we can find common ground on is the belief that the possession of small amounts of marijuana should not lead you to jail or to become a felon," Glover said.
Magee and other advocates of expanding the medical cannabis program said the current products legally available — tinctures, topical creams, gummies and metered-dose inhalers — are too expensive for many patients.
"This is wildly popular in every corner of the state and it's what people want and what people need," Magee said of the medical pot expansion.
Lawmakers implement largest gambling expansion in three decades
Voters in 55 of Louisiana's 64 parishes approved legalizing sports betting in their communities last fall, but lawmakers had to agree to regulations and taxation before it could be implemented.
Republican Senate President Page Cortez's Senate Bill 247 regulates full on-site sports books, or betting areas, and the mobile applications for betting.
Cortez's bill makes 20 sports book licenses available with existing casinos and racetracks having first refusal option. Each of those licenses will include two "skins," which will be used to contract with mobile application providers. Edwards said he will sign the bill.
House Bill 697 by Republican Rep. John Stefanski of Crowley to tax the wagers and provide for retail betting kiosks at restaurants and bars had already won final passage and has been signed into law by Edwards.
A third measure, Senate Bill 142 by Republican Sen. Rick Ward of Baton Rouge, divvies up the tax revenue generated with about $20 million destined for early childhood education.
Fans may be able to place their first sports bets as soon as the fall.
It's the largest gambling expansion since the Legislature established the lottery, casinos and video poker in the early 1990s.
Gambling generated about $600 million in state taxes in 2020.
Voters will have final say on tax reform package
Lawmakers came together for a long-sought tax reform package with a primary goal to eliminate the personal income tax and corporate tax deductions for federal income taxes paid in exchange for lowering the state’s income tax rates.
Edwards said late Thursday he will likely sign the series of bills establishing the plan, but voters will have the ultimate say in October on a constitutional amendment that would implement the new structure.
"I expect to support those bills," Edwards said.
Republican Sen. Bret Allain of Franklin and Republican Rep. Stuart Bishop of Lafayette both led the effort as chairmen of tax-writing committees in the Senate and House.
The package would also eliminate the corporate franchise tax for small businesses and lower the tax rate for others.
If voters give up their tax break for federal taxes paid, state income tax rates would be reduced from 2% to 1.85% on the first $12,500 of income, from 4% to 3.5% for the next $37,000 and from 6% to 4.25% for $50,000 and above.
Businesses would pay 3.5% on the first $50,000 of earnings, 5.5% on earnings above $50,000 and up to $150,000, and 7.5% on earnings above $150,000. Current rates range from 4% to 8%.
The complicated swap would be largely revenue neutral for the state.
Did lawmakers find a solution to fund Louisiana's roads and bridges?
House Bill 514 began as an instrument to tax the smokable marijuana program before morphing into a new sales tax bill to fund infrastructure before finally passing as a proposed mechanism to upgrade Louisiana's roads and bridges.
In the end, the bill had nothing to do with pot, and the effort to make a temporary 0.45-cent sales tax permanent fell by the wayside.
Lawmakers instead settled on a bill that would gradually move the existing vehicle sales tax — about $300 million per year — from the general fund where it pays for hospitals, healthcare and education, to the Transportation Trust Fund's construction subfund.
Edwards is on the fence about whether to sign or veto this bill because of his concerns the diversion could create a general fund deficit.
But bill architects Magee and Ward note they have put safeguards in place that would reverse the diversion during a budget crises.
"At some point 'now is not a good time' is no longer a good excuse," Ward tweeted. "Things are either a priority or not! The accomplishments of this session is a result of truly prioritizing issues and seeing them through to the end!"
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.