“Defund the Police” bill’s swan song

In a touch of political theater, the “swan song” of the truncated second special session of 2020, which seemed more about image than substance, was the final act death scene of legislation that would have punished local governments if they defunded their police departments.

The Louisiana Police Funding Protection Act defined defunding as any reduction in budgets of 25% or more, an amount difficult to control for many towns, villages and cities in the best of times – even harder with decreases in sales tax collections because of the business slowdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The measure by state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, would have given state legislators the ability to usurp elected local officials by cutting off construction dollars and sales tax dedications for any budget not giving enough money to local cops.

The “Defund the Police” movement arose during international demonstrations in June and July against unjustified police killings of African Americans. Protestors criticized the amount of funding local governments budget for law enforcement – usually the largest single expenditure – and questioned whether the money would be better spent on additional training or social programs rather than military-style equipment and weaponry.

But some conservatives interpreted the moniker as anarchists seeking to fire all police and shut down law enforcement.

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It’s become one of the bitter incendiary issues embraced by Louisiana candidates to energize bases. In arguing for his bill Harris leaned heavily on spin many conservatives accepted and didn’t spend much time explaining the nuances. The measure proceeded through a half dozen steps of the legislative process on the votes of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Only two Democratic legislators voted for Harris’ measure.

Harris had allowed several changes to the legislation, but drew the line when Democratic senators – and a couple Republican ones – successfully changed the language from covering just police budgets to the spending of nearly all local government agencies, which would make the measure all but unmanageable.

In the waning hours of the session Friday, the House agreed to change the wording back to police only. But before HB38 could head to the governor’s desk the new wording needed to be approved by the full Senate.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, already had named the senators who would inform the House and governor that the Senate was ready to go home. Then the legislation arrived from the House and was all but sure to get enough votes for final passage.

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After the bill was called for a vote, Democratic Sen. Jay Luneau, who is Harris’ senator from Alexandria, wanted to speak.

He arrived at the podium with two bottles of water and started by recalling childhood visits to Charlotte, N.C. to visit an uncle relative who was a police officer.

Meanwhile, Harris and his senate supporters huddled with Cortez while Democratic senators wandered past the president’s perch to sign up to speak.

Cortez later said when it became clear that Luneau was filibustering, Harris supporters in the Senate asked what to do. Under the Senate rules, Cortez told them, Harris supporters would have to get 26 signatures from the 39 senators to call an end to the filibuster. If the 26 signatures could be gotten, under the rules, every senator who had signed up to speak on the legislation would be limited to an hour each.

“It’s an important issue and its worth the debate even if we have to stay here until midnight tonight,” Luneau said, pausing to take a long pull of water.

Cortez turned to Turkey Creek Republican Sen. Heather Cloud, who was handling the legislation for Harris in the Senate, and told her he was willing to keep the Senate in session until kingdom come, but realistically this bill wouldn’t get a vote for about 10 more hours.

Harris was willing to wait, Cortez recalled. But one of his supporters reminded Harris he wasn’t a senator so had no say in the matter.

“This is the swan song of this session,” Luneau went on.

Cortez interrupted to suggest that Luneau would allow Cloud to whisper in his ear. Under the rules, neither Cloud nor any other senator can interrupt a fellow senator speaking for or against a particular bill.

Luneau leaned over to hear what Cloud had to say, then abruptly returned to the mic, gathered up his water bottles and moved to return Harris bill to the calendar.

Cortez quickly said “without objection” thereby condemning the legislation.

Ninety seconds later, the Senate adjourned the special session and went home.

Harris is running for the 5th U.S. Congressional District seat being vacated by the retirement of U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto. The 24-parish district, drawn a decade ago by a Republican legislative majority, essentially pits candidates from Alexandria against Monroe. The two Republicans are Harris, representing Cenla, against Luke Letlow, Abraham’s chief of staff, from the more populous northeast Louisiana. Because the district is 65% White and supported Donald Trump for president with 29% more votes than Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, historically, whichever Republican candidate makes the runoff against the Democratic candidate, wins easily.

Harris had his campaign team issue a statement condemning Luneau and his Democratic colleges. “If you ever wondered why it’s so important to elect conservatives who are willing to fight – here’s your proof,” Harris wrote in his statement.

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