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The Play is the Thing

“We need to act like adults, not take our ball and go home. This isn’t a game.” – Rep. Walt Leger

It was a display of theatrics reminiscent of themes from Shakespeare, when Louisiana’s House met on Memorial Day afternoon. The chairman of the House Appropriations committee gleefully cast himself the role of villain, when he dramatized his antipathy for the Democrats in general, and the governor in particular.

Initially, it appeared their weekend apart had been a “balm of hurt minds”, soothing members’ frayed tempers and allowing them to come together to pass some revenue-raising measures.

Rep. Walt Leger’s bill defining “remote sellers” for the purposes of collecting sales tax received unanimous approval, 101-0, while Rep. Katrina Jackson’s HB 18, extending the soon-to-expire limitation on credits for taxes paid to other states, was approved 69-31. It adds $33.6-million to state revenue in the upcoming fiscal year.

On the other hand, Jackson’s bill to extend for five years the 20% reduction to certain business tax rebate programs – a bill that would generate another $11-million – failed, 51-52.

The largest generator of revenue still viable this session, Rep. Lance Harris’ HB 27, came up next. It extends one third of the fifth penny of state sales tax for the next five years. It also cleans exclusions from the remaining four cents, and will raise $366-million, reducing the looming drop off the fiscal cliff.

“I know we spend a lot of time on this Friday,” Harris said. “And everybody knows what this bill does.”

That bill, which required a minimum of 70 House votes to advance, had only gotten 64 votes for approval on Friday. Yet with no debate, it sailed through on a vote of 76-28 this time, and heads to the Senate where – it’s presumed – the upper chamber will amend it to continue one-half cent, rather than one-third.

The collective sigh of relief over successfully advancing a major revenue-raising bill was short-lived, however, as Speaker Pro Temp Walt Leger asked for his HB 26 to be called from the calendar.

“Members, we have seven days left. We’ve approved some revenue, and now we need an instrument to carry it. HB 1, the traditional designation for the budget bill, has not been filed, but we have HB 26,” Leger said of his version of the budget bill. “Appropriations meets tomorrow, but this bill is not on the agenda. Therefore I make a motion to discharge the Committee on Appropriations and recommit HB 26 to the Committee of the Whole.

“There’s no need to wait any longer. Let’s continue to get the work done, and build on the momentum we have – without any further delay and without any further special sessions,” Leger urged.

House Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) objected.

“We have a job to do, and the job has rules. First off, the state constitution says the budget ‘shall not exceed the official forecast of the Revenue Estimating Conference’. Another small snag: this bill appropriates $648-million dollars that we didn’t raise. We just raised about $400-million,” Henry said. “So we can go against the constitution, or we can wait until we know exactly how much revenue we have available.”

“No one wants to pass a bill that appropriates dollars that don’t exist, but why can’t we pass a budget bill that doesn’t appropriate the additional funds?” Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) asked.

“We’ve got to get as most accurate as we can when dealing with the state budget,” Henry insisted. “And our Appropriations committee members have said they need to hear public testimony to decide where the funding should be allocated.”

“So you’re insisting we go to another special session?” Ivey asked, to make the scheme perfectly clear.

“I wish there was a way around it,” Henry said, with an elaborate sigh. “I have involved the Treasurer and Attorney General in making sure we do everything we can.”

Wait…what cruel jest is this?

Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge), the longest-serving member on the Appropriations committee, wasn’t buying the chairman’s act.

“You said you spoke to members of appropriations? How could you? You haven’t even been here!” she challenged him.

“I’ve spoken with some of them, and will discuss it with you and the rest after we adjourn today,” Henry replied airily. “But I’ve got the general idea.”

“We know what is needed, so we should just move ahead now,” Smith insisted.

“Without public testimony?” Henry asked, feigning dismay. “I’m surprised that you of all people would suggest such a thing.”

“We’ve heard it – on this side and on the Senate side – in emails, texts, messages from our constituents,” Smith answered testily. “And your starting this process all over again put the dollars into another special session, rather than into the programs our constituents want us to fund!”

“Spending $30-billion without a single day of public testimony would be worse,” Henry volleyed back.

Regarding the motion to remove Leger’s budget bill from the purview of the Appropriations committee, Rep. Robert Johnson (D-Marksville) had questions for its author.

“Has Appropriations met since we started this session?” Johnson asked.

“I don’t believe so,” Leger replied.

“Couldn’t they have been meeting and taking public testimony all along?” Johnson wondered.

“Is it possible, in the number of days we have left, to even have a budget?” Rep. Julie Stokes (R-Kenner) inquired.

“It’s possible to do with HB 26,” Leger answered. “But I don’t see how, without significant suspension of rules, we can get another bill to do this. Remember, it takes 70 votes for those suspensions. So I don’t think another bill can get through the process.”

“I think there is concern because your bill starts with $648-million added in,” Stokes advised Leger.

“Amendments can be added to change the funding, and I welcome that,” the Speaker Pro Temp responded. “I don’t believe in parking the bill, nor killing it because it doesn’t look exactly how I’d like. The budget belongs to all of us, and it reflects the will of the body more than any other thing we do. My desire is to get through the process, but to do that, we have to have a bill, and this is the only one we have.

“If you don’t vote to move forward, you’re essentially saying you’re okay without a budget, and you’re good with crashing this session. We need to act like adults, not take our ball and go home. This isn’t a game.”

Henry apparently took that statement as a challenge.

“Did you like the budget bill, HB 1, that the governor vetoed?” he asked Leger.

“I like parts of it, that it fully funded health care, and that it spoke to our priorities,” Leger replied, warily.

“If you wanted, by 6 o’clock today, your concerns about the budget could be resolved,” Henry said, slyly. “We wouldn’t have to hear a budget at all. All you need to do is withdraw your current motion, and move instead to override the governor’s veto.”

“Perhaps if you had filed a supplemental spending bill?” Leger riposted.

“You can’t supplement a budget that doesn’t exist,” Henry parried.

“You have to have a bill,” Leger defended. “Exactly my point of this motion.”

“A bill that follows the constitution,” Henry jabbed. “I didn’t write the constitution. I’m just trying to follow it.”

“And I’m trying to read it to you,” Leger insisted. “The section you quoted doesn’t pertain to what we do. It’s part of the directions given to the governor for submitting the executive budget proposal to the legislature: Article 7, section 11: ‘The governor shall submit a budget recommendation that’…”

At that, Henry proverbially dropped his sword point and bowed, saying, “I’m done. Your bill will be heard in committee tomorrow.”

Leger then withdrew his motion, and returned to his desk. Henry, on the other hand, remained at the front of the House, and could be heard remarking flippantly to House Clerk Butch Speer, “Let’s give it a whirl.”

He, like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, was prepared to press his suit for a pound of flesh.

“I call HB 1 for a veto override,” he said. “I know we’re all desperate to go home, and I’m with you. We override; we can have a budget; and we can supplement it with another bill. If y’all are so concerned about not having a budget, we can have one right now.”

Rep. Sam Jones rose to question the chairman.

“This seems like a reaction to the previously heated debate. Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

“It makes it all easier,” Henry replied. “It’s what I’ve been working on for the last several days – trying to work around having to do the full $30-billion budget again.”

“You said earlier you’ve been meeting with the Treasurer and the A.G. Have you discussed this at all with the administration or the Senate?” Jones asked.

“No, I haven’t talked to the administration in oh…four months,” Henry said blythely.

“Was this your plan all along?” Rep. Major Thibaut asked, clearly stunned at the malicious turn the discussions had taken. “You said you’re ready to get home. I’m ready to do the people’s business!”

Next, Leger rose, and Henry turned away, announcing loudly, “I’m going to stop answering questions. Let’s vote.”

And they did, 52-48 in favor of a motion that required 70 votes to pass.

Let’s review what we’ve learned over the past several days, and what the bard called the “method in this madness.”

House Speaker Taylor Barras has no control over his party’s members – not even over those he has elevated to leadership positions.

For while there was “much ado” last Friday over the fact that 15 of 16 Democrats who voted against HB 27, the sales tax measure carried by House Republican caucus leader Lance Harris, were members of the Legislative Black Caucus, far less was said about the fact that five House committee chairmen and three vice-chairs voted against it, as well. When the votes on HB 27 were tallied Monday, eight of the Black Caucus members – along with three Republicans – had changed their minds and voted yes. Yet the eight members of the House leadership team did not budge.

Barras had best look to his command, for as Shakespeare said, “Now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarvish thief.”

Cameron Henry, the ostensible power behind the throne, who defaulted to Barras as Speaker because he was so disliked two years ago, still cannot command a simple majority vote from the House. On the override, every Democrat except Neil Abramson, two of the three independents, and ten Republicans voted against it.

And, from the depths of his animosity toward the Democratic governor, Henry has resorted to conspiring with the Republican Treasurer and the Republican Attorney General – yet still is failing in his quest.

Henry has revealed to all now that he is, as Shakespeare said, “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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