Con Game Exposed: “Ray Charles Can See What’s Going On”

LONNEGAN: “Your boss is quite a card player. How does he do it?” JOHNNY HOOKER: “He cheats.” – The Sting – Best Picture, 1974 While Louisiana’s House was late convening Sunday night, the Senate Finance Committee came to order, only to hear its chairman Eric LaFleur (D- Ville Platte) announce, “We did have the Barras bill that we were going to hear today, but this afternoon, the Speaker asked that we not hear it.” A peculiar request, unless House leadership was expecting to sine die. LaFleur shrugged his shoulders and shook his head slowly, saying, “I think we’ll have to wait and see what the House does tonight, so we’ll just recess.” Yet once the House did convene, it appeared they were going to try, making the procedural move to allow Walt Leger’s HB 8 be reconsidered later in the agenda. And then they re-called the Speaker’s HB 15 – a constitutional amendment tightening the state spending cap. It had failed to muster the necessary 70 votes last week. Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) asked Speaker Taylor Barras (R- New Iberia), “Since this is one of the contingency objects (chained to other bills via amendment), if this were to pass, would you vote to remove other objects from those other bills?” “I’m not prepared to answer that at this time,” Barras responded. “You won’t make a commitment?” Smith pressed. “You’re asking me to to make a decision on something that is not before us at this time,” Barras answered with finality. And this time, HB15 passed, 74-28 – an apparent sign that some sort of compromise had been reached. Next up was the quarter-penny sales tax bill, HB23. Members of the Black Caucus offered amendments to de-couple the bill from the two Medicaid restriction measures, HB2 and HB3, which were adopted, without objection. So far, so good. Then Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger (D- New Orleans) made a motion to return the sales tax bill to the calendar so his bill, HB8, seeking to eliminate the ability for taxpayers to double-count deductions, could be heard first. “Without HB8 passing, you won’t have enough votes to pass your bill,” he advised Rep. Stephen Dwight (R- Lake Charles), the author of HB23. According to economists, Leger’s bill would almost exclusively affect those with incomes of more than $100,000 a year and bring in an additional $79 million in annual revenue. Dwight’s legislation, which sought to maintain a quarter of the additional penny in sales taxes set to expire, would burden the poor but raise another $290 million a year. From the beginning, Democrats have expressed their apprehension about renewing any portion of the sales tax increase, but they were willing to compromise on Dwight’s bill if Republican leadership first reconsidered hearing Leger’s bill. The House voted on Leger’s motion, and it failed to pass, 45-58. The Speaker was among those voting no. They went back to questions on Dwight’s bill, with Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) asking, “Do you have a sense of what the vote is about to be on this bill?” “I think it’s time to move this bill,” Dwight responded. Rep. Julie Stokes (R-Kenner) had another question for Dwight. “My understanding is this bill won’t pass, and then the session will blow up. Is there anything we can do to return to calendar?” “How many times are we going to return it to the calendar?” Dwight countered. “But we’ve been hearing we were to take up 8 and then 23, and then there would be peace and harmony,” Stokes urged. “I’m ready to run this bill,” Dwight insisted. “Why not return it to the calendar, as a show of good faith, and hear 8 first?” Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) inquired. Dwight hesitated, but after getting a head shake from the Republican Caucus leader, his resolve returned. “I’m ready to move this bill right now. Either I have the votes or I don’t have the votes,” he said. “If you were operating in good faith, that’s what you should do – did you know?” Marcelle responded. Then Dwight, reading from prepared notes, closed on his bill, saying, “This bill is centerpiece of this special session. We’ve worked hard on both sides of the aisle. We’ve done, I think, everything we could do. This is the right thing to do, so we can go home and tell our TOPS parents we made the difficult decision, the right vote.” When the votes were counted, it failed to pass, 33-70. The Speaker, as well as Republican leaders Lance Harris (R- Alexandria) and Cameron Henry (R- Metairie), voted no. Rep. Stuart Bishop (R-Lafayette) made an immediate motion to adjourn until Monday. Protests erupted from the floor, but the Speaker informed members is was a non-debatable motion, which then passed 60-43. It felt remarkably like the betting window slamming shut on Doyle Lonnegan at the climax of The Sting, and there’s no doubt that more than a few House members who were endeavoring to compromise in good faith felt stung. Julie Stokes said, “There were a number of us that tried a number of things to stop that from happening.” Houma Republican Tanner Magee (R- Houma) said, “This is embarrassing. I was told before I walked in that Democrats were blowing this thing up.” Yet even if every House Democrat had voted for HB23, it would only have mustered 60 votes. And Dwight told reporters that even though his bill was crucial to success of the session, he was never included in strategy meetings for getting the bill passed. Over the weekend, he said, it was the Governor’s staff keeping him apprised with updates on the vote count. Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge), the vice chair of the Black Caucus, remarked, “How many times have you heard that the Senate and the Governor have had an agreement in principle with the Speaker, only to have the deal blow up? Several times. It’s commonplace and it’s known around the Capitol. This session is no different.” Like many other members of the legislature, James took to Twitter to express his frustration. “Ray Charles can see what’s going on. House Republican leadership wants us to fail,” he wrote. And there is ample evidence in the aftermath of Sunday night’s debacle that James is right. Rep. Barry Ivey stated the reason clearly on the House floor Thursday afternoon: “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’.” All of this – the months of meetings with the Governor, the Speaker’s demand letter the end of February, the agreement a special session was needed, the “do-or-die” statement, and coming back Sunday for “one last effort” – was elaborately staged in order to brand the Governor a “failure”, while spinning the narrative that House Republican leadership had “done everything we could do.” Gov. John Bel Edwards is wise to the game, issuing a statement: “House Republican leadership did not negotiate in good faith. A vast majority of the House wanted to solve this problem, but were not given the chance. We held up our end of the bargain, and the House leadership went back on their word.” Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger stated: “Just to be clear, we helped the Speaker pass every one of his ‘budget reform’ bills out of the House. He couldn’t deliver votes on ANY of the revenue he promised to the Governor and President Alario…who crashed the session?” Speaker Barras issued a statement of his own – as expected, directing blame at the governor. “The Governor’s continual demand that the only solution to the fiscal cliff was to raise $994 million or nothing, while being unable to garner the support of his House Democrats, contributed to the collapse of this session. The Governor’s effort to only accept revenue increases to equal 100% of his calculation of the fiscal cliff caused frustration with his all or nothing demands. Louisiana deserved a better chance at moving forward,” he wrote. At the end of The Sting, Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) tells Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), “You’re right, Henry. It’s not enough, but…it’s close!” Then the conspirators each pass the sign, each brushing a finger beside his nose. And Speaker Taylor Barras couldn’t help verbally thumbing his nose at the governor over the success of the con just minutes after the House adjourned, saying, “This is a big turning point for our state.”
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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.