BATON ROUGE, La. — Beyond the budget, the two most contentious issues of Louisiana’s legislative session are shaping up to be guns and gambling. On both topics, Gov. John Bel Edwards has been noticeably quiet, seemingly hesitant to wade into new controversies when he’s still mired with old ones.
The Democratic governor has offered some tempered initial thoughts and says he’s studying the proposals. If legislation on the divisive topics gains traction, Edwards likely will get dragged into the disputes eventually.
About two dozen bills involving gun laws have been filed, most stemming from last month’s school shooting in Florida, in which a gunman killed 17 people. Louisiana lawmakers disagree about whether to widen gun laws or curb them in an effort to protect people.
Several Republican legislators are suggesting laws to allow concealed handguns at schools and the arming of teachers or other school officials. Democrats, meanwhile, are proposing bans on assault weapons and other gun restrictions.
Edwards nodded to the gun debate in his opening day speech to lawmakers, but he dodged taking a position on specific bills. Instead, he referenced the “national conversation.”
“Our priority is public safety for our children, and I know that we can have a constructive dialogue here in Louisiana over the course of this session and advance this cause,” he said.
Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said the governor will be meeting over the next two weeks with educators, law enforcement officials, advocates and representatives of the National Rifle Association “to determine the best approach for Louisiana.”
“The ultimate goal is to ensure students can learn in a safe environment, while still recognizing and protecting an individual’s Second Amendment rights,” Carbo said in a statement.
It’s unclear what approach, if any, could gain traction.
Rep. Stuart Bishop, a Lafayette Republican and gun rights supporter, said he doesn’t expect most of the gun bills to go anywhere in the House. Republican Senate President John Alario said he’s also not sure if any of the measures could make it through his chamber.
“How do you best protect children in their schools? I think that’s what the discussion will be centered around,” Alario said. “I think it’s an issue that needs some debate.”
Beyond guns, lawmakers are diving into heated debates on gambling, a topic that had remained largely dormant for years in Louisiana.
About 30 proposals involving video poker, riverboat gambling, the New Orleans land-based casino, slots at horse racing facilities and sports betting have been filed. Most of the measures would expand gambling or lessen existing restrictions. One proposal would move a riverboat casino from Bossier City to a shallow river in Edwards’ home of Tangipahoa Parish.
Supporters say the proposals would keep gambling facilities competitive with their counterparts in other states, to keep dollars flowing to Louisiana’s treasury. Gambling, including the lottery, brings in about $900 million annually to state coffers.
Edwards sidestepped gambling in his opening day speech. His spokesman said the governor is still reviewing the bills.
But Carbo said Edwards is “generally supportive” of allowing riverboat casinos to move to land and redefining the limits on their gambling space. Carbo said the governor doesn’t believe those ideas expand gambling.
Edwards also supports proposals from Harrah’s to build a second hotel and expand its non-gambling footprint at the New Orleans casino.
“Harrah’s plays a critical role in New Orleans’ economy and this expansion represents their continued commitment to Louisiana. This expansion will create jobs and revitalize a major tourist attraction,” Carbo said.
Gambling lobbyists may have more immediate worries than whether Edwards is on board with their proposals — namely, the concerns of Alario, a powerful leader whose decisions can often determine a bill’s fate in the Senate.
“I am personally concerned about so many gaming bills being introduced in this session,” Alario said Thursday. “Every form of gaming has decided if somebody’s doing something they want a piece of action, and I’m not sure each of those things are in the best interest of the people. Further expansion of gaming I don’t think is very good for our economy as a whole.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
An AP News Analysis