Oddly, if not ironically, conservatives may end up having Sen. Pres. John Alario to thank for keeping the focus on right-sized, sensible government in Louisiana as the state grapples with a looming budget deficit for fiscal year 2016.
In days gone by, the Democrat-turned-Republican often fronted efforts to expand government spending with commensurate tax increases as part of that. Whether for convenience sake and/or genuine ideological change, as Louisiana began electing legislators more compatible with their own worldviews and that worldview itself began to deemphasize populism, Alario became more conservative/reformist in his voting habits (in this term, his Louisiana Legislature Log voting score has crept up over 60, right about at the GOP Senate average).
And now he is throwing cold water onto House efforts, backed by some of its majority Republicans and party leadership, to raise taxes, most of these for at least a few years, as a budgetary solution by expressing a preference that the Senate will seek temporary means by which to balance the budget – implying suspensions of existing tax breaks would comprise the bulk of any revenue enhancements. As Alario’s greatest skill is herding lawmakers in a particular direction, chances are good it is this way at this time the Senate will head and thereby pressure the House to do the same.
For that reason, whether the end result comes because of personal conviction on his part is questionable. But that end result, which likely would take the form of permanent tax changes only in areas where the activity being taxed directly affects a certain government expenditure – such as on cigarettes related to Medicaid expenditures – or where taxing activities do not seem to encourage cost-effective economic growth – such as tax credits for solar installations or movie-making – would prevent longer-term tax increases divorced from the context of government spending.
Besides utilizing his own personal charms on his colleagues, Alario’s option also has other supports. Gov. Bobby Jindal continues to threaten vetoes of tax increases, with few of the non-temporary measures drawing the necessary majorities in the House for overrides. While the Legislature could try to play chicken with the governor, with the ultimate threat of him having to deal with the fallout of an unbalanced budget, if one chamber shows significantly less enthusiasm for a staring contest, Jindal will prevail where otherwise he might not.
Yet perhaps even stronger impetus for Alario’s course of action comes from the fact that all of the House’s actions on the non-temporary tax increases required that same two-thirds vote that most did not achieve, in fairly obvious violation of the Constitution. Already, the prominent and deep-pocketed Louisiana Association for Business and Industry has made noises about that with an implicit threat to sue the Legislature if those bills became law utilizing the current votes. It was joined in this opinion by Treasurer John Kennedy. Suffice to say, a number of incumbents running for reelection would rather avoid a scenario not only where LABI advertises to the electorate that they voted for tax increases, but also that there exists an open court case out there maintaining they foisted these on the public illegally. And undoubtedly other interest groups as well would join in the lambasting, which would not do anybody’s reelection chances any good.
So the question becomes whether House members want to hang themselves out to dry with repeated votes for tax hikes – for original legislation and veto overrides – that may not succeed constitutionally both in process and in substance. Better than take that risk, they may wish to proceed on keeping only the permanent measures mentioned above, which appear to enjoy decent to wide public support and can get two-thirds margins among legislators as a result, load up on temporary hikes, that as resolutions only need simple majorities to pass and cut out the governor’s involvement, and, hopefully, also consider strategies to enhance revenues that put more of the burden on the users of services.
Smaller government may be a result of this, but so much is occurring in the breach at the moment that, just as with the House’s revenue-raising frenzy that displayed little coordination and much irrationality, cutting spending also could come off more as butchery than surgical with little heed to prioritization and genuine need assessment. Therefore, it seems more effort would come in jacking up revenues than by curtailing spending, but, as Alario suggests, with next year a fresh governor and set of legislators, with gubernatorial candidates all pledging to follow history and declare a special session, on this occasion especially dedicated to fiscal affairs, immediately after inauguration, that may be a better time to institute changes (even though a plan to do it now is out there in the public domain).
That’s a lot better deal for conservatives seeking right-sized government than in swallowing a half-baked tax increase, which at this point would be the largest in the state’s history. Hopefully, enough of that impulse exists in the Legislature to make this choice instead of it continuing on the House’s current trajectory. Thereby making thesomewhat-embattled Alario a new best friend of theirs, although perhaps not for life.