“Totally Dysfunctional – Completely Unacceptable”

It took 15 days, cost approximately $900,000, and sent two bills to the governor’s desk. Neither of them reduced the height of the fiscal cliff. In his Sunday night statement following the failure to pass a sales tax bill, House Speaker Taylor Barras blamed the Governor and House Democrats – and in particular the House Black Caucus – for “repeated attempts to block revenue measures” which “deteriorated any chances of reaching a solution.” It was a theme that had surfaced a week previously, when the Speaker stepped from the dais to the well to speak on “personal privilege.” “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.” In other words, they were being “uppity”. House GOP leadership didn’t like it, and believed this was a narrative many of their constituents would unquestioningly accept. “We know what it is,” Rep. Barbara Carpenter (D-Baton Rouge) told me. “It’s institutional racism.” “Institutional racism” is defined as the pattern of social institutions – such as schools, churches and legislatures – giving negative treatment to groups of people, based on their skin color. The Black Caucus saw it for what it was, and called the complicit House members out on it. Just minutes before the end of the session, Baton Rouge Rep. Denise Marcelle rose to speak. “We were made out to be the bad guys and bad girls. How is standing up for people – the poor people of this state, a problem? You want to put your foot on their throats to balance the budget!” she said. “Mr. Speaker, you’re the leader!” That’s one of the reasons Gov. John Bel Edwards said the special session showcased “a spectacular failure of leadership in the House.” It wasn’t the only reason. “The Speaker created the revenue problem by backing away from $220-million of revenue he had previously said he supported,” the governor said during his post-session press conference. “He then blamed others when they went to him to ask him to consider other revenue measures that would fill that void. And he said it was they and not he who had caused that problem. “At least they were responsible enough to know that they needed to fill the entire cliff.” The entire House Black Caucus was present in a show of solidarity, as the governor then gave specifics on the “deal” that had been crafted with Speaker Barras. “The Speaker’s proposal to me on February 5th was that he would support and deliver 40 Republican votes in the House for $572-million in that revenue that we needed to maintain, plus the revenue to come from the federal reforms for $302-million. That was still $120-million short of the $994-million fiscal cliff, but there were other instruments and options available to us to close the difference. And I really thought it represented a good faith effort to come together and move forward to fix the cliff. “I then met with the Speaker again at the end of that week — and the President of the Senate – to confirm each and every one of his proposals, and his support for them and his pledge of 40 Republican votes to pass them. I then sat with the Speaker and the President, and drafted a call, making sure that every single revenue proposal that he had indicated he supported – and every budget reform proposal – was included in the call. “Unfortunately, when the session started two weeks ago, it didn’t take the Speaker long to go back on his word. The very first day he said he was only willing to raise an amount of revenue that was $220-million less than he’d previously told me. Of course, he continued to insist on the budget reforms, which were always conditioned upon fixing the cliff.” Governor Edwards has been here before, and at the close of prior sessions that didn’t deliver what was hoped for, would express his disappointment in lawmakers not living up to his expectations. This time was different. “Even the most casual observer of the way the House has conducted itself over the last two weeks can only conclude that it was totally dysfunctional,” he stated. “Just go back in your mind and relive the countless recesses; the inability to make a decision to move forward, to bring people together, to do the hard work that is necessary to reach compromise. “Simply put, the failure of this special session is the result of a total lack of leadership and action in the House of Representatives – a spectacular failure of leadership in the House. Not a single bill to address the cliff moved out of the House of Representatives for consideration by the Senate. Completely unacceptable.” He then went on to say, “The problem isn’t going to change. We know what it is. We’ve been facing it for awhile. The options aren’t going to change. They’re going to be the same ones that we had last year and this year. “But we’d better change. We better get serious and collectively summon the courage necessary to address this problem.” Was the governor talking about the fiscal cliff and the as yet unmet need for structural tax reform with those words, as he has before? Or was it a warning to House leadership that when the regular session begins next week, there will be a change? “I am actually more optimistic than you might imagine,” he said with a grin. “We’re going to get these problems fixed. “Are we united? Yes.”