Keeping Score: Influencing Special Session Outcomes

You hear it in the halls of Louisiana’s legislature all the time – “It’s a good bill. I really like it, but the author voted against my last bill so I can’t vote for his, no matter how good it is.” Seems rather petty, doesn’t it – keeping a personal scorecard against other lawmakers? For far too many legislators, scorecards matter – especially the ones issued by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Governor John Bel Edwards even addressed the issue during his speech at the opening of the current special session. We have to be more concerned with Louisiana’s future than what score we might receive from a partisan political organization masquerading as a trade association,” the governor admonished lawmakers. It’s such an “open secret” that Representative Sam Jones (D-Franklin) – rated 10 out of 100 possible LABI points in 2016 – joked with LABI lobbyist Jim Patterson during a committee meeting last year. I hope my vote helps my score go up,” Jones said, entirely tongue-in-cheek. Yet concerns about the LABI scorecard are obscuring the very transparency that organization touts in its campaign demanding the state implement a “Louisiana Checkbook” website. LABI’s Scorecard awards points for every vote on issues they support. The “possible points” differ from lawmaker to lawmaker, and from chamber to chamber. Bills LABI opposes often don’t make it out of committee, or out of the House or Senate. Those who are on key committees, then, get “bonus points” on their scorecard for defeating a LABI-opposed bill. Here’s what’s happening: legislators have figured out that if the committees they’re on either advance or reject a bill unanimously, the committee vote won’t become part of the end-of-sessions scoring. Sure, once it gets to the floor, they’ll have to vote by name – but there will be just one scorecard category for that bill, instead of two. And those that fear lower LABI scores are going to push their button in accordance with the wishes of that group. Take House Ways and Means, for example. Today they’ll be considering five revenue-raising bills, including HB 8. That measure, by Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, cuts in half the amount of federal excess itemized deductions Louisiana residents can take on their state income tax returns. And while LABI has officially taken a stance of “neutral” on this issue when it came up in past sessions, the business association opposes Leger’s other two bills: HB , permanently disallowing the deduction for income taxes paid to other states; and HB 16, reducing certain corporate tax credits now given as economic development incentives. The tentative agreement reached Thursday evening by House GOP leadership and House Democrats includes advancing the revenue-raising bills out of Ways and Means to the floor today by reporting them “without action with recommendation that it be referred to the Committee of the Whole.” That maneuver only works for scoring purposes IF there is no objection. An objection requires a roll call vote, with committee members going on the record by name, as being for or against it. Not everyone on Ways and Means is in accord with that agreement. As Greg Hilburn with Gannett newspapers reported Friday, Dodie Horton (R-Haughton) and Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) both told Hilburn they would let HB 23 (by Stephen Dwight, R- Lake Charles) – a sales tax bill – advance without objection, but will draw the line at advancing the income tax measures. Meanwhile, Democrats have said without the income tax measures at least getting to the floor for a vote, they’ll bottle up the sales tax bill. While Horton’s and Seabaugh’s positions are consistent with being among the “Disciples of No”, one also has to consider what benefits they may derive from remaining mindful of their LABI scores. Horton, who is in her first term, has scored 95% and 87% for 2016 and 2017, respectively. Seabaugh is in his second term, and from 2014 through 2017, his scores have ranged from 92% to 98%, consistently earning his the organization’s designation as an “All-Star”. (Only an “MVP” is better — a perfect score of 100% in alignment with LABI.) What are the benefits of their scores? Campaign donations. As reported to the Louisiana Ethics Administration, Seabaugh received $17,500 in total from LABI’s direct political action committees – EastPAC, NorthPAC, SouthPAC and WestPAC. His campaign got thousands of dollars more from individual LABI members and the political action committees of LABI member businesses. Both Horton and Seabaugh have steadily received small ($250) “attaboy” donations from LABI’s NorthPAC the past two years. But the big money will flow next year, for the statewide elections. And as Jeremy Alford with podcast reported this past October, LABI is putting together a new super PAC, enabling them accept unlimited funds for use as campaign donations in the 2019 election cycle. And the higher your LABI score, the better your chances of getting a piece of that action for your re-election campaign. It’s how the game is played. But how do you justify this kind of “gamesmanship” to the people of Louisiana who will be impacted by the failure to fix the fiscal cliff in this special session? Take Ashley McReynolds, for example. Her son Cooper has a genetic disorder known as Prader-Willi Syndrome, He currently receives a NOW waiver, helping him live at home and attend school. The healthcare cuts necessitated by the failure to replace the “temporary taxes” expiring June 30 mean Cooper will likely lose that waiver. What about higher education? Due to nearly a decade of cuts to state funding for colleges and universities, there’s been no money for even building maintenance. On his blog, LSU Professor Bob Mann has documented the deplorable conditions on the Southern University campus, as well as the deterioration of buildings at LSU –including the leaks that cause recurrent flooding of the university’s library. Just this past week, the LSU Emergency Operations Center advised students, faculty and staff that the “climate control system” (air conditioning, in particular) for much of the campus is “running at only 32 percent of its original capacity”, and that a fix for the primarily water-cooled system could take a couple of weeks. They’ve shut down all air conditioning service to faculty offices in order to keep most classrooms tolerable. Over the past several months, newspapers and TV stations around the state have produced celebratory stories about our high school students who have achieved perfect scores on the ACT. (Baton Rouge Magnet High has seven; Ben Franklin High in New Orleans has five; Ruston and Shreveport each have one, etc.) With the inability to fund TOPS due to the fiscal cliff, these students will likely choose out-of-state schools, and take their great potential elsewhere. What does the score matter, if Louisiana’s citizens ultimately lose the game?
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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.