The Special Session Just Imploded Again. Here’s What Happened…

This evening was more or less the final bite at the legislative apple at the 2018 Special Session of the Louisiana legislature, as the House of Representatives took one last run at trying to pass Rep. Stephen Dwight’s HB 23, the quarter-penny sales tax bill.

The bill had a fiscal note, in its final posture, of $290 million of tax increases based on a restoration of a quarter of the fifth penny of the state’s sales tax, plus a “cleaning” of pennies in the first four percent to include things which are currently exempt.

It’s not a popular piece of legislation with Republicans, but 33 of them voted for the bill last week – while 28 voted against it. The bill failed, with 36 votes out of a required 70, thanks to Democrats voting to kill it. But Dwight brought the bill back up in hopes that if it was reworked to pick up Democrat support he might have a different result – and when he couldn’t get anywhere with the bill on Friday, the session was tubed for another shot he might get the “yes” votes he needed on Sunday.

He didn’t.

In fact, things got worse for the bill, as Sunday evening’s vote saw it get just 33 votes. There were 70 votes against and one absence – Rep. Julie Stokes, who left the House floor after asking Dwight to pull the bill from the calendar so that something else could be debated and voted on first.

Namely, HB 8 – the excess itemized deductions bill. That bill only needs 53 votes to pass because though it’s a $79 million tax increase, it deals with treatment of taxable income and not tax rates and therefore isn’t a “tax” bill subject to needing a 2/3rds majority to pass.

The Democrats – and specifically the Legislative Black Caucus – demanded that HB 8 be voted on first. The theory seems to be that they thought either that if HB 8 went first and it passed, it would lead to a rout in which the Republicans would give up and just pass all the tax increase bills. Or alternatively, they would pass HB 8 and then kill HB 23, because all they really want to do is increase taxes on rich Republicans and not poor Democrats – and once HB 8 passed they’d make a run at ending the session.

Our readers should understand that when the session began the Republicans, led by Speaker Taylor Barras, set in place several conditions which, if met, would serve as a framework for a deal to pass some tax increases. Three of them were reforms to Medicaid, one was a change in the state’s expenditure cap and one was the Louisiana Checkbook. Those conditions, or at least most of them, were set in place as amendments to all of the tax increase bills. That included HB 23. But because the Black Caucus refused to vote for HB 23, Dwight decided to pull the amendments off his bill – essentially breaking the deal Barras established and setting up a potential cave-in. At that point the Republicans were essentially giving the Democrats everything they said they wanted.

And at that point the Black Caucus said no deal unless HB 8 had all of the Republican conditions stripped out of it and was run before HB 23.

But Dwight refused to pull his bill down so HB 8 could go first, and when Democrat Rep. Walt Leger tried to make a motion to get that to happen the motion was defeated. Dwight ran the bill, it didn’t have the votes, so it died and Rep. Stuart Bishop then made a successful motion to adjourn the session until Monday evening, at which most people think the House will adjourn the special session for good.

Meanwhile, we’re told in the Senate, the bill establishing the Louisiana Checkbook which passed the House on a 104-0 vote was pulled off of the Finance Committee calendar on Sunday. The significance of that is there is no longer much in the way of Republican conditions left to inform a deal, and therefore there is no deal, and at this point the session looks like it’s dead.

Which is a victory for conservatives who didn’t want this legislative session to result in tax increases. This being an even-numbered year, the Regular Session this year is a “non-fiscal” session at which tax-raising bills can’t be introduced. So all they can do with the budget in the regular session which starts later this month is cut the budget – as conservatives have been screaming for from the beginning.

It’s the end of the world as we know it and we feel fine.

Tomorrow, it might not be a major surprise if there is the dreaded coup attempt against Barras, but all of our sources say the votes to remove him aren’t there and the main suspected culprits in any coup attempt are in poor odor with the majority of the body.

In the meantime, what you’ll see are recriminations and blame – with Barras and the House Republicans put forth as the bad guys.

But if anybody is to blame for nothing getting done on Sunday it more or less has to be the Black Caucus. They refused to vote for a sales tax increase due to a demand that taxes be raised on the constituents of their political opposition, rather than agreeing to a shared sacrifice that the quarter-penny would have represented, and castigated several measures aimed at fighting Medicaid fraud as racist.

At this point, if Louisiana had a functional news media, lots of questions would be asked about whether the Black Caucus can be a responsible, good-faith body within the state legislature and whether they can be bargained with. It should be understood that it isn’t the GOP the Black Caucus stuck the knife into with the failure of the special session – it’s the Democrat governor John Bel Edwards. Because of the fact Edwards can’t claim to have control or influence over the Black Caucus going forward, he now has less leverage over the state legislature than any modern governor has ever had.

Which looks like the end of the world for Louisiana politics as we know it. And we feel fine.

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