Well, The Legislative Session Has Opened…

…and things got kicked off with a 40-minute State Of The State address by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.

It was the first SOTS address in Louisiana history given with the aid of a teleprompter. And it might have been the least well-received address in modern Louisiana history.

Edwards began the speech by taking veiled shots at Baton Rouge congressman Garret Graves, which he has been doing nearly nonstop since Wednesday of last week after a very poor performance testifying in front of the House Oversight Committee in Washington Tuesday. At that hearing Graves, along with several other Republican congressmen, grilled Edwards on the quality of the state’s response to last August’s flooding and particularly the speed with which the Edwards administration submitted applications for federal aid. Today Edwards took a bit of his own revenge by insinuating that “Washington partisanship” was responsible for his reception at that committee, and demanded everyone work together.

Which is interesting, seeing as though Edwards essentially ignored all the advice the Louisiana congressional delegation gave him about flood recovery and even came out of Harry Reid’s office in September demanding that the delegation support an appropriation for the Flint, Michigan water supply as a condition of Louisiana’s aid – which was a partisan Democrat demand.

Then there was a rousing (not really) defense of the Medicaid expansion. Edwards offered up a few statistics indicating the expansion’s success but didn’t acknowledge that, per federal law, Louisiana will begin getting a bill worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year for its own part of the cost to expand that program.

For good measure, Edwards threw in a pitch for a minimum wage increase and something to be done about Louisiana’s supposed “gender wage gap,” a tired argument based on the fact that secretaries for, for example, offshore marine service companies don’t make as much as deckhands and mechanics whose jobs are physically harder and more hazardous – and Louisiana has more heavy industrial employment than lots of other relatively low-wage Southern states. This is something which can’t be fixed through legislation, though an all-out attack on the oil and gas industry such as the one this governor is engaging in might alleviate the situation by draining the highly-paid mostly-male occupations to Texas.

He didn’t have anything to say, by the way, about the fact men make some $12,000 more per year than women in his own administration.

And then, the tax increases the governor wants. From Jeremy Alford’s report on the speech at the Baton Rouge Business Report

Edwards said his plan of attack includes expanding Louisiana’s tax base, reducing tax rates for 90% of individual filers, and removing and limiting certain tax credits and exemptions.

Those changes would largely be placed on the backs of business and industry. “It’s to ensure that these businesses only pay their share for using Louisiana’s roads and bridges, for having their employees educated and trained in our schools and universities,” Edwards said. “This broadens the base of our business income tax system to ensure that everyone pays their fair share.”

The governor put some statistics behind his argument. He said 80% of Louisiana corporations do not pay any state income tax. “For C-corps, those businesses that are taxed at the entity level, 80,000 out of 101,000 did not pay any income taxes,” Edwards said. “That means a CEO’s administrative assistant at some of the most profitable corporations paid more in state income tax than the companies they work for. That’s just not right. Basic fairness demands that we do better.”

This rhetoric was offered in defense of Edwards’ idea to institute a gross receipts tax, something which has been a failure in virtually all of the states trying it. Texas is about to eliminate its own gross receipts tax; when that’s done, you’ll be able to live and do business in Texas without paying that tax or an income tax, whereas in Louisiana you’ll be on the hook for both. Guess who’ll be more economically competitive?

Edwards then offered a horribly disingenuous admonition to legislators. He chided those who would vote “no” on all of his tax proposals by demanding they offer their own “specific” budget cut proposals, which he said he could respect. The program is that Edwards’ Division of Administration is not transparent with the legislators as to where the state’s money actually goes, and individual legislators generally don’t have the time or the staff to do a full audit of the state’s spending necessary to identify potential savings. The leges therefore are at the mercy of the governor for information about Louisiana’s budget; all they can really do is take Edwards’ budget on faith and then decide how much of it they can fund.

Edwards didn’t invent this scenario. It’s been going on for a very long time. But his predecessor refused to increase taxes while practicing an annual bit of prestidigitation in order to present a balanced budget, and therefore the impetus for legislative independence on the state budget wasn’t really there.

But now, with a governor who not only won’t cut the budget but insists on growing it, it’s awfully convenient. Demand the legislature cut the budget without giving them full access to the books, so that only a few will really take the time to dig deep into where the money goes, and then complain when their response is “Here’s how much we’re giving you; you figure it out.” Those complaints usually involve some manifestation of the Washington Monument Strategy; if something is to be cut then by all means it has to be the most painful thing possible.

Throughout the speech while Edwards was lecturing the room about the need for “bipartisanship” defined as “agreeing with him,” there was a distinctly cool reception. His applause lines met with only a smattering of cheering by Democrat legislators, while Republicans were notably silent until the end.

This indicates a couple of things. First, Republicans in the legislature are displeased with the governor’s conduct and, we’re told, are especially dissatisfied with his having unleashed the Baton Rouge Advocate’s Tyler Bridges to write a broadside assault on House Speaker Taylor Barras over the weekend. There is bad blood, particularly in the House, as a result, and the willingness to cooperate with Edwards is now at an all-time low. Second, there is little to no interest in Edwards’ tax-and-spend agenda in the legislature. The gross receipts tax is dead on arrival, we’re told by multiple legislators, while Edwards’ other major initiative, a substantial gas tax increase to fund road construction, hangs by a string – and incidentally, the governor’s biggest problem in passing the gas tax increase comes from Democrats. Gas taxes are regressive taxes, and the state’s poor people are already groaning under the strain of the nation’s highest combined state and local sales taxes. Piling on a tax for poor people to drive to work is not a popular idea and it seems that Edwards isn’t exactly putting on a charm offensive to attract the Republican support he needs for that tax hike when his own side disfavors it.

Nothing in that speech indicated the prospect of much success in this legislative session; in fact, it seems quite obvious that it’s going to be trench warfare with little result and quite likely a lame duck governor at its end.

UPDATE: Jeff Sadow wasn’t impressed, either

Yet perhaps the most palpable understanding of the address derives from what has become the core conceptualization defining Edwards’ governorship – his articulated belief that opposition to him and his agenda stems only from partisanship, or electoral considerations, or political ambition that leads to unserious governing. More succinctly, Edwards’ view on things is self-evidently correct; therefore, opposition to him has no legitimacy, explainable by these baser considerations.

This insufferable attitude prevents any realistic appraisal of public policy options available and strays from a fundamental truth: Edwards simply purveys an entirely wrong-headed agenda that in the aggregate is destructive to Louisiana and the life prospects of its citizens, assailing their property and liberty; that the real reason why opponents fight him. Repeatedly when mentioning various issue areas in the speech, by attempting to delegitimize opposition through ascribing obstructionist motives to it, he tries to avoid the very policy debate he said he welcomed during the address that ultimately would prove how out-of-step he is with Louisiana’s majority.

Edwards probably realizes the make-or-break nature of this session to his political future: unless he gets fiscal reform and a balanced budget on his terms, he becomes a one-term governor with little historical impact. This explains the combative tone of the speech. But such tone-deafness as he displayed throughout it earns this effort a D-minus, kept from failing only by advocating some helpful items such as in the area of criminal justice.

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