The thing you have to understand about what’s going on in this year’s legislative special session is that Louisiana has its most ineffective governor in a generation, and that’s being charitable. Given who the governor is, this is actually a benefit.
On the day John Bel Edwards came into office, he found out he didn’t have control of the Louisiana House of Representatives because he had bungled the election process for the Speaker of the House. Previous governors had always exercised some control over the Speaker elections, but typically only after finding out who the likeliest candidates to win would be and then jumping aboard the friendliest and strongest horse in that race. Edwards misread that history to believe that the governor’s support is what signifies the strength or weakness of the horses and he could therefore demand Walt Leger, a Democrat, as the Speaker of a Republican House. That blew up in his face when the Republicans found a consensus candidate in Taylor Barras, who is the first House Speaker in decades to be elected over the opposition of a sitting governor.
The significance of that independence, if not opposition, can’t be understated. Barras isn’t as flamboyant a political actor as, say, Newt Gingrich was after the congressional revolution of 1994, but the dynamic is similar.
Following the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives, Bill Clinton is said to have summoned his White House staff and issued the famous quip, “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans” – meaning that in the end, frustrating though it might be, an effective political leader can only work within the context of what is possible. Clinton engaged in a great deal of political warfare with Gingrich and the Republicans, but at the end of the day he did what they wanted done – welfare reform, a balanced budget and other elements of Gingrich’s Contract With America became the law of the land, and Clinton’s more audacious dreams for leftist legislative victories had to go by the wayside.
It doesn’t appear that Edwards understood that history. He’s proposed 31 different tax increases to resolve a $900 million budget deficit for the current year in this special session, which was always a Fantasyland approach to the problem; tax increases require a two-thirds vote for passage, and demanding that a Republican-majority body of legislators who ran and won on a platform of lower taxes and limited government abandon such pledges and vote for tax increase after tax increase is wholly unrealistic.
The results so far have been precisely what one could expect. The House didn’t kill all those tax hikes in the Ways and Means Committee; they did make it to the floor. But the vast majority of them can’t get 70 votes out of 105. Since Edwards put a floor under the state budget and only offered miniscule cuts that he would accept, the entire game revolved around those 31 tax increases.
And the House gave him the bulk of what he wanted; namely, his one cent “clean penny” tax hike, which raised state sales taxes from four cents to five and bumped the state’s tax revenues some $220 million for the rest of this year and $900 million next year – which wipes out about half of the projected deficit for that fiscal year. It also put those House members in the position of having voted to make state and local sales tax rates in Louisiana the highest in the nation, which is a pill the Republicans in the House would only swallow if the tax hike were to sunset at the end of the next fiscal year. The thinking was that the tax would carry the state through its current budget crisis this year, but in the regular session which starts later this month the legislature would have no choice but to undertake major budget reforms and bring down state spending by reducing the size and scope of state government to reflect the revenues available to it – and no more.
Here at the Hayride, a pair of Republican state legislators, Sen. Conrad Appel and Rep. Alan Seabaugh, made the position clear – they would be willing to assist in raising revenues to clear the immediate fiscal hurdles but only in exchange for real, substantive budget reform. Those revenues were not to be “banked” as renewable fuels for the growth of government.
Edwards’ response to that position, which is shared by a majority of House members and a large portion of the Senate (though not a functioning majority since Senate President John Alario, a true Republican In Name Only if ever there was one, controls what happens in that body), has been to threaten that developmentally disabled kids would have to be fed to large reptiles in the state’s swamps and bayous, and there would be no college football in the fall, should he not get the tax increases he demands. And to this end he has dispatched LSU president F. King Alexander to repeat the warnings of financial exigency and academic bankruptcy. Edwards has made no offer to find less painful and less high-profile budget cuts, because he doesn’t want to – he wants tax increases and he wants to grow government. He can’t get that if he shows that there are places he can cut without the world coming to an end.
In short, it’s a power play. He’s demanding that this special session make his dreams come true with those tax increases, so he’ll have enough tax revenue to play with that he can shower state dollars on all of the various Democrat constituencies as a reward for helping him to get elected. And yesterday, when it appeared that most of those tax hikes are dead in the water, he called a press conference to howl and whine about how “irresponsible” the House is for not passing them.
“So if the legislators think they’ve done their job because they gotten some what close to the $940 million hole this year, they are sadly mistaken,” said Edwards during a press conference just before noon on Friday.
The governor said house members wasted “multiple days” this week instead of taking up proposals to erase the budget red ink.
“I’m prepared to accept the political scars that I walk away from this special session on, but what I am not prepared to do is to not do the people’s business so that they suffer tremendously because of inaction from a legislature that refuses to move forward on the balanced comprehensive plan that I’ve given them, or come up with their own,” said the governor.
But the House isn’t buying. Edwards demanded that one of his tax increases, a hike on alcohol sales that he says only amounts to “three-quarters of a penny on a can of beer,” be passed yesterday. That would raise some $6.7 million this year, or resolve about five percent of the deficit still outstanding. And after his public tantrum the bill failed by five votes on the House floor – a perfect illustration of how little influence Edwards has. Among the “nays” were Barras, House Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry and Republican House Delegation chair Lance Harris; their refusal shines as a testament to the fact they won’t be bullied by the governor and he needs a new approach.
It turns out that if this impasse is going to be resolved, the likely way for that to happen will be through that sales tax which the House did pass. When the bill went to the Senate, its length was extended from 18 months to five years, which the House members we’ve talked to said is thoroughly unacceptable. They object to the idea that a giant tax increase like that would stick around past the 2019 election, and rightfully so, because functionally that would just mean a never-ending source of money to fuel a larger government.
Instead, as Jeremy Alford reported yesterday, House leaders are kicking around an idea Edwards hates – namely, that they might look at a three or four year life span on that sales tax bill as the conference committee meets on it, and adjust the rate of the increase to front-load the revenues. In other words, instead of a one-cent increase it might become, for example, a 1.5-cent increase for this year and next year, then drop down to one cent for the year after that, then a half-cent, and then it sunsets. That would provide Edwards with enough revenue that he wouldn’t have to feed developmentally disabled children to alligators or TOPS recipients to ISIS, or whatever other calamity he’s threatening today, but it would emphatically make the case that rather than preside over a full term of expanding government he has no choice but to participate in a restructuring of the state’s fisc in a more sustainable direction.
Edwards has taken to screaming at people behind closed doors at this idea, but we hear it’s probably the best he’s going to get. If he carries through on any of his wild threats about the high-profile effects of budget cuts he might not even last his full term before the voters turn him into a historical footnote, and he knows that – and so do those Republican House members who are calling his bluff.