From comments proffered by state Rep. Lance Harris, leader of the GOP House delegation, at a meeting of Baton Rouge Republicans, we can draw two conclusions: level of government, national or state, doesn’t affect the tendency for party leaders in elected offices to lose touch with the people that elected them and that it takes some self-deception and delusion to hold that office, that personifies the products of this year’s session of the Legislature stemming from the state’s political culture.
Harris seemed taken aback when members of the conservative audience queried why the party’s House contingent seemed overly eager to embrace non-conservative solutions in dealing with the troubled state budget, such as the largest tax increase in the aggregate in the state’s history, rather than by making more of an effort to right-size state government. Perhaps his lower lip trembled when he replied, and what he said deserves full rendition to understand the incredible lack of self-awareness contained within it:
You don’t have the LGBT agenda this year. You don’t have the pro-choice agenda this year. You don’t have the expansion of Medicaid this year. You have gotten everything you wanted as a conservative on the social issues you want. Period. But we still have to govern as the Republican Party when it comes to the finances of the state of Louisiana. And to call some of us liberals because we have to make that tough choice …. We have taken care of 90 percent of what conservatives want taken care of.
As I write, flooding of the Red River continues in the area, necessitating the moving of cattle to higher ground. In the process, cattle leave behind deposits. And if Harris really believes what he said, then he’s full of that. Parsing his statement shows just how oblivious to reality it is.
Let’s begin with his assertions in this year’s session that on issues regarding the extension of acceptance of homosexual behavior into the public square regardless of kinds of religious belief, the protection of the unborn, and on keeping Medicaid expansion at bay, the Republicans he leads “have taken care of 90 percent of what conservatives want.” He has to be kidding; the actual tally is 0 percent.
Does HB 707 by state Rep. Mike Johnson ring a bell to him, that would prevent the state from infringing upon religious liberty on the question of (among others kinds) same sex marriage? It went down to defeat in a House committee with more Republicans voting against it than for it. Or HB 701 by state Rep. Lenar Whitney that would prevent selective sex abortions, which got smothered in a Senate committee? Or HCR 75by Speaker Chuck Kleckley that opened the door to Medicaid expansion next year, for which every single House Republican originally voted (five later changed their votes) including Harris? Does this sound like conservatives getting everything they want on these issues?
While HB 701 got out of the House, clearly Harris has no pull in the Senate as the bill went to the most hostile committee conceivable, with Democrats comprising five of its seven members and a couple of them being outspoken pro-abortion apologists. In the Senate, there are three judiciary committees with the same jurisdiction that could have heard the bill, leaving it up to the discretion of the chamber leaders to direct those kinds of bills to them. Both of the other two have healthy Republican majorities where a pro-life majority could be expected. And had it gotten out of committee, the same success would have happened in the entire Senate. So if Harris made any effort at all to intervene with the chamber leadership, principally with its president Republican state Sen. John Alario, to steer the bill to either of those other committees, he failed miserably.
It’s more difficult to blame the fate of HB 707 on lack of juice on his part. If he really believed in that part of the conservative agenda, he could have delivered all of the Republicans on that committee that strangled the bill, where they hold a narrow majority. Still, with just one vote to spare, it’s possible a recalcitrant GOP member could have thwarted such efforts.
But while the failure of these two bills could be chalked up to inability to lead, there’s no question that HCR 75 was an own goal in the worst way. Clearly so-called conservatives wanted this to pass by having the speaker offer it and putting up no resistance to it except for the five belated members who either needed to change their votes for political cover or who were so inattentive that they let it go by originally.
And, regardless of whether the causes of these rejections of conservatism was lack of ability to lead and/or benign neglect, the fact remains that these happened negates entirely Harris’ contention that on this range of non-fiscal issues presumed conservative House Republican leaders had delivered the goods this session for conservatives. Compound this with their decisions regarding the alleged “tough choices” that rather than minimizing violations of sound conservative policy exacerbated these.
While the fact remains that Louisiana has a spending, not revenue, problem, the sorry condition of its fiscal structure means, given the numbers as they are at this moment and in near future, no budget solution could be had that could bring spending down to the appropriate level that would not be counterproductive to short term goals of service delivery and long term aspirations of rationally matching genuine needs to required revenues. Thus, some taxes would have to be raised, making the question for conservatives what would be the least injurious way of doing so.
Minimizing that amount would be the first goal, and this seems at best to have been pursued in a lukewarm fashion as in the tolerating of unneeded state spending, for example such as on health clinics in New Orleans that city, not state, taxpayers should support. However, as not enough of that kind of spending can be found, then the amount left over must come in raising taxes, and for conservatives the decision-making on that front should focus on getting rid of unproductive tax exceptions and raising those taxes and fees directly related to the provision of government services.
Instead, the Republican House majority produced an uncoordinated mélange of dreck that lacked any coherent conservative philosophy behind the choices made. Instead of scaling down drastically, if not eliminating, wasteful exceptions, it went for giving many business-related ones a haircut without any regard to effectiveness, protecting several of the most wasteful and giving cosmetic reductions to the remainder like the Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit. It has resisted the most obvious and palatable increase, not only because use of these products increase state health care expenditures where the related tax revenues come nowhere close to offsetting the expenses triggered but also because this kind of tax increase commands the most public support of any, that on tobacco products.
The inexplicable resistance to accepting higher tobacco taxation than it heretofore has countenanced illustrates how Harris, other GOP House leaders like Kleckley, and some party members so inconsistently follow conservatism. It bears reminding that House Republicans enjoy a 59-44 (and two no-party members) partisan advantage. If all were on the same conservative page, they would not object to a significant increase in tobacco taxes, at least to levels in the aggregate reasonably close to other states, so long as the proceeds from those taxes went directly to paying for state expenditures caused by tobacco use, through understanding the bedrock conservative principle that people should take responsibility for their own actions and not fob off those costs onto others.
Yet Harris and Kleckley have been perhaps the two most vocal opponents against signing on to the Senate’s much higher proposed level. And perhaps that’s not an accident, as they both own convenience stores that do a lot of business selling tobacco, allowing catering to a special interest to take precedence over the people’s interests.
Regardless of motive, this disconnection is exemplified by Harris’ thoughts on a higher cigarette tax level, where he declared on the floor concerning one higher than the House’s preference “It’s not fair to put it on the backs of a small segment of society.” If you’re a conservative, that misses the point entirely: the primary purpose of the cigarette tax is not to extract wealth but to have people take responsibility for the costs that otherwise they externalize to everybody else.
Perhaps Harris understands conservativism only in a visceral way or has that understanding clouded by special interests. But to have attempted a defense of legislative Republicans who in the main have not followed a conservative agenda during this session by acting hurt at those who do understand what conservative policy looks like and called him and others out for not providing that shows a degree of cluelessness regardless of its origin.
Also do not forget that conservativism argues for the respect of the rule of law, and the likes of Harris, Kleckley, and all too many House Republicans conspired to violate that in pushing forward tax exception paring without the constitutionally-necessary two-thirds majorities, placing convenience over principle in that way as well. In doing so, they neglected, with one exception, making these changes temporary, which not only would satisfy the constitutional requirement of just a simple majority for suspensions, but also would not make permanent what should be temporary alterations that beg to be part of a comprehensive review of the state’s entire fiscal structure. Nor does the Senate, also held by a Republican majority, escape approbation for its menu of budgetary decisions even as it has seemed to take a more thoughtful approach.
And that has been emblematic of how the Legislature, with its House majority led by Harris, has grappled with the budget this session. Conservative approaches have been diluted by the populist tendency in Louisiana’s political culture, whether it be manifested in pandering to special interests, by unwillingness to surrender government largesse, or in finding some bogeyman to blame and thereby seeking policy retribution on them. Without the firm guidance of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who until the last couple of years with few exceptions presented conservative policy leadership of all kinds, an unambiguously conservative course to formation of the fiscal year 2016 budget was abandoned, if ever even attempted. Thus the transformation of Louisiana into a state where conservatism reigns remains incomplete, where if the likes of self-identified conservatives like Harris deny they are a duck but walk like one ….