“My hamster died.” “The dog ate my homework.” “The devil made me do it.” All classic – but lame – excuses. State lawmakers offered their own during the House Ways and Means committee Wednesday.
It began with committee chairman Neil Abramson, explaining for why they would not be voting on any bills.
“You can’t just show up at a special session right after a regular session and start voting on bills,” he told everyone attending the hearing. “Many of these bills were not filed until yesterday afternoon, and we need to know what these bills are and what they do. It’s not fair to begin voting today, for even though we’ve discussed similar bills on similar topics in the past, these bills may not be written the same way.”
“Then I hope you will vote tomorrow, and pass as many as possible on for full debate,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne responded, before trying to direct the panel’s attention to specific revenue-raising bills consistent with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan for filling in $648-million of the $1.4-billion in temporary taxes that disappears the end of June.
“HB 9 takes care of the double deduction for state income tax paid – that’s $25-million. Then there’s HB 11, which addresses the sales taxes – renewing one half-cent and cleaning the remaining four cents. The fiscal note on that is $543-million,” Dardenne stated. “And there are three bills by Rep. Jackson – HB 13, 18, and 19 – that make the ‘haircuts’ on business deductions permanent.”
“But the governor vetoed the budget,” protested committee vice-chairman Jim Morris (R-Oil City). “A lot of us felt we could come here now to raise the money, and just plug it in. Now we have to start all over. We don’t know where the money is going, and I’m not comfortable with that.”
“The House version of the budget eviscerated health care,” Dardenne replied. “And while the Senate version restored funding for health care, it cut TOPS, higher ed, and cut out SNAP benefits entirely, in addition to cutting 25-percent from all state agencies. This was not acceptable – not any version – and I expect a lot of you were actually glad it was vetoed.”
“I wasn’t,” Rep. Paula Davis (R-Baton Rouge) insisted. “I was frustrated all weekend, and I didn’t sleep well, because we had funded things and had balanced the budget. We had a starting point and we knew where we were going, and now we’re starting over.”
“That budget was 100-percent unacceptable,” the Commissioner stressed. “It contained contingencies based on money not raised. Contingency provisions are unconstitutional. And the veto is not the issue we are here to address now.”
“I feel like the governor has continued to throw the House under the bus,” Davis pouted. “Starting over is completely unnecessary.”
“So start with HB 1, and amend it as you add revenue,” Dardenne replied, reasonably.
“It hasn’t been filed yet,” Davis responded.
“True. It hasn’t,” Dardenne answered, with a hint of a knowing smile.
“Where are spending reforms in all this?” Rep. Jay Morris (R-West Monroe) wanted to know.
“You just had a regular session where you could have done those,” Dardenne answered.
“Okay, well, in that session, there were bills to expand gambling. Where does the governor stand on diverting the money from those measures to fund priorities like health care and education?” Morris asked.
“I don’t know,” Dardenne said.
“What about redirecting money we now spend on the Saints and Pelicans?” Morris asked. “Or what about the film tax credits? Instead of subsidizing Hollywood, shouldn’t we be subsidizing our priorities?”
“You all control that,” Dardenne responded. “You are the ones that legislate changes.”
“But you’re the leadership! You need to say what you want,” Morris insisted. “It looks as though the administration is just looking for money, but is unaware and unwilling to look at gambling or film credits or Medicaid fraud. We could fix this with savings from those things, but you just don’t care – or don’t want to be bothered!”
“Please point to the structural reforms in this call,” Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) requested.
“Cleaning the exclusions from the sales tax pennies, changing the allowance for federal excess itemized deductions, and compressing the income tax brackets are all items recommended by the Tax Reform Task Force that are included in this call,” state Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson responded.
“And we have tried to pass these before, correct?” Ivey asked.
“Yes, all in 2017,” Robinson agreed.
“So when we passed the temporary measures – gimmicks really – much was said about the need for structural reform. We said we would do structural reform in 2017. We did not do it,” Ivey stated. “Basically, we told the taxpayers ‘pay us now and trust us later.’ We’ve proven that we can’t be trusted. I realize why Louisiana is shaped like a boot. It’s because we are the kick-the-can state.
“On the other hand, I have seen no leadership from the governor, trying to pivot this state away from stagnation,” Ivey continued. “By that, I mean, it seems like all we’re trying to do is solve the budget hole. I don’t see how any of the proposed revenue changes will fix that. We pick on small business, we pick on the people with more money, and it seems we only exist to serve the poor. We don’t care about small business owners. We don’t care about the middle class.”
“I haven’t heard anything here other than excuses and blame the governor,” Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) admonished. “We have fiscal notes and could vote on some of these bills today. Instead, we’re blaming the governor for legislative priorities – that he gets no vote on!
“I will tell you my mindset has changed and I am willing to do some things that I hadn’t been willing to do. Previously I voted no on sales tax, but guess what? I now have my name on one of the sales tax bills,” James said emphatically. “I see a theme of change, I just see it only on one side.
“Oh – and as for the veto? There’s nothing to stop any one of us from filing the vetoed version of HB 1 and moving on from there,” James stated.
“I don’t care whether it was vetoed or not. I didn’t lose a minute of sleep,” Rep. Major Thibaut (D-New Roads) remarked, looking over at Rep. Davis for emphasis. “I think we need to get down to business, cut the rhetoric from both sides, and let’s solve the darn problem!”
The committee adjourned, however, without specifically discussing any of the bills that are the purpose of this special session. Later in the day, the agenda for Thursday’s Ways and Means meeting was posted, and – at least this time – there are twelve bills scheduled for action. They include Ways and Means chairman Abramson’s HB 3, the capital outlay bill. (And note: in this 3rd year of his chairmanship, this is the third year in a row that he has been unable to get that completed during the regular session.)
And while House Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) has yet to file HB 1 – the budget bill (wonder why?) – Speaker Pro Temp Walt Leger (D-New Orleans) took care of it for him, just in case. HB 26 is the administration’s originally proposed budget from the regular session.