Blame Claims: Who is Responsible for the House Impasse?

After Sunday’s progress on moving bills to the House floor, Twitter was chirping Monday morning with state lawmakers warning the process was about to come to a screeching halt. Marcus Hunter (D-Monroe) sent the first alert: “No bills with Ways and Means Committee amendments will pass in their current posture.” Nancy Landry (R-Lafayette) followed with an update: “The Black Caucus has issued an ultimatum to increase income tax by compressing tax brackets or they won’t vote for any bill. In other words, they are blowing everything up.” And when the full House ultimately convened nearly two hours after they were scheduled, Speaker Taylor Barras handed the gavel off to Representative Alan Seabaugh, and spoke from the well under “personal privilege”. “We had a full calendar debate scheduled for this morning. We have most all of the “negotiated” revenue bills. We have four of the five reform efforts we had talked about,” Barras began. “I’m concerned, for after meeting with members of the Black Caucus, there is a ‘new’ proposal that they have offered. It’s the first we’re hearing of it. It is not one of the options that we’ve been talking about this past couple of weeks. What the caucus offered this morning was a new development. “I’m more concerned about the engagement and direction that’s being offered from the administration. We’ve reached out, but the governor and his team need to be a little more clear on the direction they’re choosing to take – that they direct what intent they have, and what bills they intend to support. The direction that we’re getting is unclear. “We have a limited number of days to do this, and I believe there’s a solution. It’s going to require trust and a reaching across the aisle to pull this off.” With that, the House adjourned for lunch. When they returned, the Speaker announced House leadership had some work to do amongst members, so they would not reconvene until Wednesday morning. That brought Ted James (D-Baton Rouge), the vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, to the wll on “personal privilege” of his own. “I took some time over the lunch break to reflect on what was said at this podium, and tweeted about the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus ‘blowing things up’,” James explained. “Our position on the sales tax has been very, very clear from the very beginning of this process. The bills that we want to discuss have been filed many times this year, last year, the year before last.. So it’s not ‘new.’ “But what was said at this podium is we’re going to blame a small portion of this body, because the Black Caucus is unified in opposing these things. Guess what? We’ve always been unified. We’ve always been in firm opposition. “We recognize that we cannot cut our way out this. But we are not going to solve the problems that we created by asking the poor and the working poor to bail us out. “I know that many times as a caucus, we compromise. And many of you entered this session thinking, ‘Oh, they’re going to bend. They’re gonna fold. That sales tax is gonna pass.’ “Mr. Speaker, we’re not frustrated, but we are serious. We are not solely responsible for the way this session is going. We’re not solely responsible for the budget deficit that we inherited. To lay the blame on the governor and the Black Caucus is just irresponsible. “You guys can have different opinions, but you can’t have your own facts. “It’s not a spending problem, it’s a leadership problem. We have a leadership issue. And until we address that, we will continue to have problems.” In between all this public back-and forth on the House floor, Governor John Bel Edwards met briefly with reporters, and offered his take on the blame claims. “We had some members of the Black Caucus today to float an idea for a compromise, and you saw how the Speaker responded, which I think was unfortunate. The idea that individual members of the legislature or groups can’t get together at any time and start a conversation about the best way to resolve the impasse and fix the fiscal cliff, I think it’s disingenuous for the Speaker to have said that,” the governor told us. “Clearly he was suggesting that I should somehow get the Black Caucus in line, and he also suggested that I haven’t been communicating with him, which is false. In fact, several days ago, I tried to sit down with him and initiate a conversation about where we were, and he never did respond.” Who is being truthful, and who is prevaricating? Let’s look more closely at the claims made by the Speaker. 1. Compressing tax brackets is “new” and “the first we’re hearing of it.”   False. HB 9, by Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, was heard in House Ways and Means February 21, though it was never brought to a vote. “Legislating with regard to income tax brackets” is the first item in the call for this special session, and was including in the governor’s proposals for fixing the fiscal cliff, which he released this past December Changes to income tax brackets were recommended by the Tax Reform Task Force more than a year ago, while bills to make these changes were filed (and killed by the House Ways and Means Committee) in the 2017 regular session, both special session in 2016, and even during the 2015 regular session. In addition, when describing this session’s HB 9, Leger called it a “return to Stelly tax brackets”, referring to the 2002 voter-approved “Stelly Plan”. 2. “We’ve reached out but the direction that we’re getting is unclear.”  False. The governor said he “tried to sit down and initiate a conversation” but the Speaker “never did respond.” We checked with the Governor’s staff, and that was on Friday, February 23 — the day the Speaker had originally been scheduled to present his bills for a full House vote. Undoubtedly, the Speaker didn’t respond because he was otherwise occupied – attending an event that had been scheduled and announced on February 8. This: 3. The Black Caucus is the problem.  False. This has so much wrong with it, I don’t know where to begin. 4.“I believe there’s a solution that’s going to take reaching across the aisle.”  True. But it seems abundantly clear that the current House leadership believes that solution involves – as Ted James said – “They’re going to bend. They’re gonna fold.” And while some House members were heard asking Monday afternoon, “Why don’t we just cut our losses and sine die?” A growing number are agreeing with another of Ted James’ statements: “We have a leadership issue. And until we address that, we will continue to have problems.”