Veto Override Debate Rare, Dramatic, Historic

A rare calm settled over the state House of Representatives Thursday when Rep. Harold Ritchie stepped up to the microphone to ask his colleagues to bring his cigarette tax bill back to life. Gov. Bobby Jindal had killed it with a veto three days earlier.

Legislators were all in their seats, the gallery was full of spectators, and people were seated all along the sides and in the back of the chamber. Everyone in the House stayed quiet and focused for the next 90 minutes.

It was a dramatic occasion because opportunities to override vetoes by Louisiana governors don’t come around often. Their vetoes have only been overridden twice in modern times, in 1991 and 1993.

Most vetoes take place after legislators go home. They don’t like to go back to Baton Rouge simply to fight what would probably be a losing cause anyway.

Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, wasn’t deceiving himself. He knew the 70 votes he got when the bill passed the House that he needed again weren’t there anymore. However, he believed the issue to be important enough to give it one last try.

Is it a health issue?

Jindal had written about the harmful effects of smoking in 1997 when he was secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals under Gov. Mike Foster. Ritchie reminded his listeners about the article.

“What the governor has done with this veto is repudiate his life’s work,” Ritchie said.

Opponents of the bill disagreed, saying the 4-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes wasn’t going to stop anyone from smoking. So it isn’t a health issue, they said.

Supporters of the governor also argued the tax was originally passed as a temporary measure and should be allowed to expire.

A 70-cents-per-pack tax would help discourage smoking, but Ritchie lost an effort to pass that tax earlier in the session. The 4-cent tax was a fall-back maneuver.

Ritchie’s thought was, if we can’t increase cigarette taxes, let’s at least keep the tax we have. The 36 cents now on the books is third lowest in the nation. To go down to 32 cents in the summer of 2012 is virtually unthinkable in a society that has declared war on smoking.

The speakers who urged colleagues to override the veto each made convincing arguments. Most were Democrats, but five were Republicans and two were independents.

Strikingly absent from the debate was anyone’s defense of Jindal’s veto. Those who planned to support the governor were conspicuously quiet about such a momentous decision.

Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, cut to the quick with his comments about that.

“My seatmate has said repeatedly, ‘Is no one going to go down and defend the governor on this?’ Damn, y’all, I can’t. And why? Because this does not make common sense,” Carmody said.

Those who wanted to override the veto echoed a similar theme.

Ritchie said, “I realize the governor had the right to veto the bill. We have the right and responsibility to override that veto.”

Rep. John Bel Edwards, DAmite, said, “If we are a co-equal and independent body, we can’t allow the governor to substitute his wishes for our decisions.”

Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, said, “This is a rare opportunity to sustain what this house has voted. It allows us to answer critics who say we only do what we are told.”

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said, “Veto is simply part of the political process. This isn’t personal: This is our government. It is clear this is what the people of Louisiana want to happen.”

Ritchie ended the drama when he asked: “How many of you have the courage to vote for your people today?”

The answer was a 58-44 vote to override the governor, which was 12 short of the 70 votes (two-thirds) needed. The issue was finally settled, and the Senate didn’t have to vote.

Some who were absent would have been yes votes, but others who were absent when the bill first passed voted no this time. The major difference came from 11 representatives who switched to no from their earlier yes votes. Eight are Republicans, two are Democrats, and one is an independent.

I felt a sense of pride when I realized the nine House members from this corner of the state voted consistently on both occasions. Four voted to override, and five were against.

Like others, I happen to disagree with the five who voted against an override. However, I respect their opinions and their adherence to their political principles.

Carmody expressed my sentiments exactly when he said the veto didn’t make common sense.

Switch turned tide

Newspapers were tough on those who changed their votes.

“Members who switched set a new low in subservience,” wrote The Advocate of Baton Rouge in a Friday editorial.

The Times-Picayune in an editorial said, “Gov. Bobby Jindal won veto fight, but Louisiana lost.”

Why did the 11 switch?

Some said they didn’t want to oppose the governor. One said the issue could be revisited next year before the tax expires, but it isn’t a taxing session. And Jindal will still be governor, and nothing will change.

No one said it, but political ambition may have moved some to switch their votes. Anyone in that situation wants the powerful and influential governor on his side.

Legislators who switched their votes each had his or her own reasons. I would be uncomfortable in their shoes, so I hope they are truly convinced in their own minds that they made the right decision.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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