“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right – as God gives us to see the right – let us strive to finish the work we are in.” – Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
They like to refer to themselves as the “Party of Lincoln,” but Louisiana’s House Republicans would have this nation’s sixteenth president covering his face in shame over how far they strayed from his words yesterday.
The day’s House session began congenially enough, with members voting 73-18 to approve HB 27 by Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge). It raises the tax on cell phones and landlines by one half-cent, to provide for telecommunications services for the deaf.
Next up, however, was HB 2 by Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville). The measure would give the Legislative Auditor access to state tax returns, in order to verify income for Medicaid recipients. After mentioning “fraud” repeatedly, Bacala’s intent was questioned by Rep. Gary Carter (D-New Orleans).
“Wouldn’t you agree the vast majority of fraud is by providers, not recipients?” Carter asked. “If the concern is Medicaid fraud, why are you focusing on the poor people seeking medical attention?”
“We have all the tools in the toolbox to go after provider fraud. We don’t have this tool,” Bacala replied. “This doesn’t kick anyone off Medicaid.”
But Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) expressed doubts.
“If it doesn’t kick anyone off, why is the Attorney General mentioned on page two?” Marcelle asked. “The only reason to include the Attorney General is to prosecute fraud.”
Bacala admitted that was his ultimate goal.
“There could be prosecutions for fraud,” he said. “We’re trying to make the program accurate, although the law at this point prevents us from determining individual recipient fraud.”
“It looks like you’re trying to find something wrong with the people receiving Medicaid and prosecute them,” Marcelle responded. “It looks like we’re throwing a net out, and don’t care what we catch.”
Then Rep. Raymond Crews (R-Bossier City) got up to try and help Bacala pass the bill.
“It says in Leviticus, ‘Do not show partiality to the poor.’ This bill should increase the public’s trust that we are being impartial.”
“Thank you, Brother Crews,” Bacala responded.
The bill passed, 71-31, and thirty Republicans signed on as co-authors.
The subsequent discussion of HB 3, instituting work requirements for Medicaid, further emphasized that attitude.
Author Frank Hoffman (R-West Monroe) stressed the “helpful” purpose of the bill, saying “Research shows working helps people stay healthy.”
But Rep. Gary Carter wasn’t buying into this premise, or this bill, either.
“It’s almost as if you are holding poor people hostage,” he remarked, before asking, “What does this legislation have anything to do with the fiscal cliff we are facing?”
“Helping people get a job increases tax collections for the state,” Hoffman responded.
The bill was sent over to the Senate, on a 69-29 vote, and the House recessed, with the announced intention of voting on revenue-raising bills after lunch.
When they returned, they began with HB 8, authored by Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger (D-New Orleans). The bill, which eliminates state deductibility of state and local income taxes paid, had become the crux of contention between the Black Caucus and most House Republicans.
The Legislative Black Caucus opposes sales tax increases without income tax adjustments, while the Republican majority was willing to hold their noses and vote for temporary sales tax hikes, in order to retain funding for TOPS.
“If you itemize deductions, this bill will no longer allow you to deduct this year the state and local taxes you paid last year,” Leger said, to explain his bill. “Federal law doesn’t allow you to deduct federal taxes paid. Why should the state allow it?”
Leger reminded House members this was a structural tax reform recommended by every one of the task forces the legislature had set up to look into Louisiana’s tax structure.
He then attempted to unchain the bill from two of the Republican-pushed budget reforms that the Black Caucus found most objectionable.
“Remove HB 2 and HB 3. Leave the rest,” Leger said. “Don’t force members who have expressed their will on those two bills to say no again. Those bills have already gone over to the Senate, but I’m afraid it will grind this whole process to a halt if we don’t remove these two.”
Yet the vote was 47-52 against removing those links from the chain amendment.
Discussion of the bill continued, while outside pressure on conservative Republicans was mounting.
State director of the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, John Kay, tweeted out “I wouldn’t vote for income tax changes if I were y’all, #lalege.”
And Grover Norquist, promoter of the infamous “no new taxes, ever” pledge, tweeted, “Louisiana taxpayers are counting on the legislature to protect them from money-hungry John Bel Edwards.”
Some Republicans, though, got up and spoke in favor of the bill.
Barry Ivey (R-Central) said, “I support this. I can support revenue as a by-product of good policy.”
Rob Shadoin (R-Ruston) quoted Matthew 25:40: “’Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto Me.’ The least of these. Who’s their lobbyist? You are.”
Julie Stokes (R-Kenner), referencing her battle with breast cancer this past year, said, “I’ve never seen us at a bigger crossroads. This is it – this minute. Let’s come together and heal this.”
But Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) was having none of it.
“This isn’t the time to do this,” he insisted. “We don’t know the numbers on the federal tax reforms yet. Once we have those, and new revenue estimates, then we might not even need any additional revenue.
“What we do know – everybody knows – is that the $994-million is not an accurate number. The governor got up here and told a bald-faced lie!” Seabaugh thundered. “You’re asking us to stick it to our constituents! It’s bad policy, and it’s bad re-election strategy!”
(It should be noted that Seabaugh is currently being vetted for an appointment to a federal judgeship).
Rep. Denise Marcelle spoke next. “I oppose this bill because of the amendment,” she said. “The person who put the amendment on the bill put it there to kill the bill.”
Seabaugh was the author of the amendment shackling Leger’s bill to all the others.
But Baton Rouge Democrat Ted James told the House, “I support the bill. I despise the amendment. I despise the spirit of the amendment. That amendment is hateful. But it’s not enough for me to ignore the needs of the people of my district, or the needs of the people of this great state.”
Then Leger spoke again, closing on the bill.
“We work very hard from this well not to call people names, act with dignity and respect. I have to say, Gov. Edwards is not a liar.
“We each came here to positively impact people’s lives. This is one of those moments. Let’s solve the problems before us to the extent that we can.”
The vote was 50-51, and the bill failed to pass. Seabaugh made a motion to table the bill, which would have completely removed it from further consideration, and Leger objected.
“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “There appear to be some machines that got voted by members who have not been here at all today.”
A “lockout” vote was called, yielding just 99 – not 101 – members present. The Speaker called for the caucus leaders to join him at the dais, and then told the House to “stand at ease for a few minutes.”
Those few minutes stretched into more than five hours.
In the interim, it was confirmed that Kevin Pearson (R-Slidell) and House Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) were completely absent, but had been each counted as voting against Leger’s bill. (Notably, House Ways and Means chairman Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans), who is now closer to the Republican caucus than his own party’s, was also conspicuously absent).
The various caucus groups platooned in and out of House chambers for repeated conferences.
Meanwhile, Gov. Edwards sent a note to Seabaugh, inviting Seabaugh to come up to his 4th floor office for a chat. Seabaugh didn’t go, explaining on Facebook, “Since the House is still in session, I am not going to leave the floor for any reason because I do not want to miss a vote. However, I have accepted his invitation, and will be going to have a personal pow-wow with him upon adjournment this evening.”
That never happened.
What ultimately did happen? The House gaveled in, and promptly adjourned until 5 p.m., Sunday.
And on Day 12 of the special session, Louisiana House members of the “Party of Lincoln” seemed to exemplify the complete opposite of Abraham Lincoln’s noble words, showing instead malice toward all and charity for none. Although there was firmness on the right, they did not finish the work they were in.