Wednesday was “make or break” day for full House votes on bills to forestall the July 1 fall off the fiscal cliff. But after convening nearly two hours past the scheduled 10.a.m. start time, the House immediately went into recess.
The hours ticked away, with caucus groups platooning in and out of the chamber in waves and other whirlpools of conversation swirling desultorily – then reforming here and there. Throughout the long afternoon, the official posted House status said, “Recessed until the call of the Speaker”.
Lawmakers were questioned about what was happening behind closed doors. Republican Caucus chairman Lance Harris said, “I believe the quarter-cent sales tax is going to get out, but it all depends on the Democrats.”
Author of HB 23 – the sales tax bill — Representative Stephen Dwight, said, “I’m willing to change my bill any way it can get 70 votes. I want to see it voted on, because the citizens of Louisiana deserve that the vote be made.”
But Houma Republican Tanner Magee was less than confident that a deal would be struck. Several times he said, “We should just cut our losses, save the state money, and sine die.”
Late in the afternoon, Democrat Sam Jones came down from the Governor’s office on the 4th floor to deliver a cryptic and unwelcome message to the Speaker: “The answer is no.”
Democratic Caucus chair Gene Reynolds explained, “There is no agreement. It’s about to crash and burn.”
Shortly thereafter, the bell rang and all the kids…or lawmakers…came in from recess, and Speaker Taylor Barras began shepherding his bills through the process, beginning with new limits on the state expenditure cap.
Representative Malinda White (D-Bogalusa) asked, “Why are we doing these items before the fiscal bills?”
The Speaker replied, “I wanted to do this first because we are still negotiating amendments to the fiscal bills.”
Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger pointed out, “ We promised that we would deal with the fiscal cliff. This does nothing to address that.”
Speaker Barras responded, “I agree. This does not help the cliff. But what we spend and how we control it are part of what we do.”
The statute implementing the expenditure cap limits passed, 65-40, but it only required a simple majority. The constitutional amendment – which required a two-thirds vote (at least 70 in favor) – failed.
Barras then moved on to the bill creating the LouisianaCheckbook.com spending transparency website. The bill is heavily back by business and industry groups, who have gone so far as to purchase that domain and use it to promote the bill requiring the state to create the transparency website there.
There were efforts to amend the bill to require the website divulge the names of companies receiving state tax credits and rebates, or economic development incentives, but those items failed. Ultimately, the Louisiana Checkbook bill passed unanimously.
Finally, they began work on the revenue-raising bills, beginning with the sales tax measure. HB 23, by Stephen Dwight (R-Lake Charles) would add back one-fourth of the expiring fifth penny os sales tax, and clean many of the exemptions off the remaining four cents. It was expected to generate a little over $300-million per year – but only for three years, due to an amendment added in committee making the tax changes temporary…again.
There was a parade of proposed House amendments, most of which dirtied the clean pennies again. Then Representative Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) proposed an amendment that removed the committee-added sunset of the tax.
Proponents of the amendment argued that “temporary” taxes would harm the state’s credit rating, something confirmed by state Treasurer John Schroder earlier in the day. The amendment failed, 41-62.
The parade to the lectern at the front of the House continued with lawmakers getting up to speak on the merits or failings of the bill itself.
Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger (D-New Orleans) commended Dwight on his efforts to present a bill “with the best intentions to bring us away from the fiscal cliff.”
“But I hear from my constituents – and I ask myself – ‘Why are we here?’ We are not here by accident,’ Leger stated. “We were suckered. Bamboozled. Fugabooed. We were told by the Speaker’s letter January 30, 2018, that this was ‘to steer our great state away from the cliff.’ We passed some budget reforms, relying on an explicit agreement that they were tied to revenue that would solve the fiscal cliff. Not some of it, but solve it. But we’re told today: ‘no agreement’.”
The emperor has no clothes.
Then Republican Barry Ivey took the mic, and elaborated on that theme.
“Republicans keep preaching, ‘We don’t have a revenue problem – we have a spending problem,’ yet the grand solution is just a temporary sales tax. The problem with hypocrisy and rhetoric is you will eventually paint yourself into a corner.
“Last year, I brought a package of bills that attempted to do comprehensive tax reform. Yet the Republican leadership told me, ‘We don’t want the Democratic governor re-elected, and we don’t want to give him any kind of win with tax reforms.’ Still, I tried and failed. And at the end of that session, I was told, ‘We aren’t going to do tax reform. We’re going to come back for a special session and renew the fifth penny.’
“We place partisanship before people, and there is a generational cost to all this: Louisiana won’t be competitive. But some people are content to sacrifice the opportunities of all constituents, for the sake of politics.”
Barry Ivey told the naked truth — publicly. Louisiana’s House leadership and its “Disciples of No” were never negotiating in good faith. There was never any intent to solve the state’s fiscal problems for the long term, because their end game is to brand John Bel Edwards a failure as governor.
Late last night, Lance Harris, head of the House Republican Caucus, tweeted, “It is a sad day when the leader of the Democratic party (Governor) can’t produce.
Yet as Republican Rob Shadoin of Ruston said, “We’re delivering nothing. The people of Louisiana deserve better than this.”