Louisiana’s “Disciples of No” are ignoring the warning signs

As the minutes ticked off past the Ways and Means Committee’s scheduled starting time, it was clear something was amiss. By twos and threes the members huddled, talking animatedly, but softly, with more than a few signaling obstinance via the body language of crossed arms. Tweets were flying from reporters’ phones, saying Democrats – and the Black Caucus in particular – were holding firm against any sales tax measure unless some form of income tax reform also advanced. Fifty-five minutes late, Ways and Means chairman Neil Abramson called them to order, with apologies and a patently false excuse of “we’ve had difficulty gathering documents.” Representative Pat Smith’s (D-Baton Rouge) bills were called first, with the increase in the phone sales tax, and the $1.50 surcharge on phone cards advancing to the House floor without objection. But once her bill to roll all the sales tax holidays into a single weekend had been amended to the majority’s satisfaction, Representative Dodie Horton (R-Haughton) objected to reporting the bill favorably. When the roll was called, the bill was approved, with 11 in favor, but three votes against: Horton, DeVillier (R-Eunice), and Seabaugh (R-Shreveport). Normally, that wouldn’t matter, since the bill was going to the floor. But with Stephen Dwight’s (R-Lake Charles) sales tax raiser, HB 23, the next item in the queue, it should have been seen as a caution light. Dwight’s bill cleans the existing four pennies of sales tax and renews a quarter cent of the expiring fifth penny. Black Caucus members have made clear statements for several months now that they won’t back renewal of any part of the fifth penny, but Dwight began the action on his bill by saying, “This is an option that fills some of the fiscal cliff that we’re facing, and sales tax is the only thing I’m comfortable with moving.” Barry Ivey (R-Central) said he appreciated the effort to do something, even if it’s “slightly unpalatable.” “It bothers me that this solution is to extend what was a temporary bridge to the solution,” Ivey remarked. “But with an extremely limited special session call, your options are only bad option A, bad option B, or bad option C.” “This is the only option to go forward,” Dwight insisted. But then came the “chain” amendment, shackling passage of Dwight’s bill to passage of seven others: HB 2, HB 3, HB 11, HB 12, HB 29, HCR 2, and HB 15. Those include work requirements for Medicaid, as well as co-pays and premium payments. In addition, the Speaker’s measures for lowering the state spending cap and for establishing the Louisiana checkbook must pass for Dwight’s bill to take effect: all or nothing. Baton Rouge Representative Ted James began laughing, incredulously. “This is amazing!” he said. “This is like the Michael Jordan of amendments! Dwight, are you okay with this amendment?” When Dwight answered affirmatively, James continued, “I’m very interested in the transparency piece, and I hope the author of that bill includes how much we’re actually paying out in credits, exemptions, and deductions. Because I think the taxpayers deserve to know who’s benefitting. I know the folks in my district want full transparency. They want to know who we’re subsidizing – who’s benefitting from the inventory tax. So I’m not going to object to the Michael Jordan amendment.” That amendment was adopted, and Dwight closed on his bill, saying, “I think this is the bill that we need. I think this is the bill that gets us where we need to be. Is it perfect? No, it’s a work in progress.” Then James did object. “We all question why we’re doing this. We don’t like it, but we’re going to continue to do it. I, for one, am not going to continue to do that. “ “I think this bill needs to come out of this committee,” Dwight responded. “I think without this bill, this session is over. “ “This is not the only bill that we have. It’s not the only solution,” James replied. “Everyone knows what’s going on here: we’re playing a game, and I’m not gonna sit here and play it.” “We’re going back to the people and telling them we’re ready to make a billion dollars in cuts?” Dwight asked. “I’m not ready to make a billion dollars in cuts – not for my hospitals, my universities; not for my TOPS students. I want THIS bill to go forward to the floor.” “I don’t want to kill the bill. I want the gentleman to return it to the calendar – the nice way – voluntarily defer,” James insisted. With heads nodding in agreement all across the committee, the stunned chairman accepted the motion for deferral, then immediately called a recess. They returned to their places within a half hour, and resumed calling the bills on the docket. Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, who had six bills on the agenda, said, “I’ve been following what’s been going on, and so I request voluntary deferral of all my bills, in order to give more time for negotiations.” Rob Shadoin (R-Ruston), with two bills, said, “Just reading the tea leaves, I want to follow suit.” One after another, authors appeared and requested voluntary deferrals, until a still-flustered Abramson said with a sigh of relief, “I believe that clears the calendar, correct? We are adjourned.” The warning signs have been obvious: crossed arms, eyes flashing with indignation, statements issued by both House and Senate Democratic and Black caucuses that they would not accept a fiscal cliff solution relying on sales tax in lieu of systemic tax reforms. Despite the alarm bells clamoring loudly from the Ways and Means Committee results, just a couple of hours later House Civil Law added a similar ball-and-chain amendment to HB 15, the Constitutional Amendment changing computation of the state spending cap. Its author is House Speaker Taylor Barras. House GOP leadership should be aware that bills linked by chain amendments are all doomed to failure – a poison pill, if you will. Is that their ultimate strategy – to force failure of this special session so they can spin it as the failure of Democrats, and the governor in particular? Or are these “Disciples of No” true believers in the dogma of smaller government being the key to opening the pearly gates of “cutting our way to prosperity”? Whatever the motivations are, it appears their tunnel vision is preventing them from seeing the train that’s about to cross the tracks ahead.