B is for Budget, Backlash, and Bologna

The morning after a Senate committee delivered a stinging rebuke to the House by increasing the revenue generated by Lance Harris’ (R-Alexandria) sales tax measure, then hijacking Walt Leger’s (D-New Orleans) HB 12 to create another bill just like it – but with a more cooperative author – the full House took up the budget. And on what is always a day filled with tension, it didn’t take long for the backlash to begin. House Appropriations chair Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) made it clear from the start that he intended to, as usual, keep the members on a short leash when it came to changes. “I know everyone is buzzing about what happened last night on the other side, the money that might be raised by Rep. Harris’ bill. But I’m not comfortable with spending more than the REC has recognized. That’s what this bill does,” Henry said. “The supplemental bill, which we will do after this, will distribute any additional revenue.” The Appropriations chairman had not intended to do a budget bill this session, preferring to wait till the revenue bill made it all the way through the process, and then “save the day” by leaving both chambers no choice but to override the governor’s veto of the previous session’s HB 1. Rep. Walt Leger, wise to Henry’s machinations, forced that plan to change earlier in the week. And it was Leger who rose first to question Henry about the budget bill. “Is it correct to say that this bill reduces the Department of Health by $90-million dollars, which is a total reductions of $495-million when you factor in the federal match?” Leger asked. “Out of about $13-billion total for LDH. Correct,” Henry replied. “And this contains language that tells LDH they cannot make cuts to the public-private partner hospitals, to waiver serves or to nursing homes. With those limitations, where do you expect them to make the cuts?” Leger asked. “If I tell them what to do, I’m micro-managing,” Henry replied. “They have room to move money around. This lets them spend about $52-million a day. It depends on what LDH makes a priority.” “And you are reducing the Department of Corrections by $25-million more, in addition to not paying the sheriffs for housing state prisoners?” Leger inquired. “They live in that world of always wanting more funding,” Henry said, dismissively. “This HB1 is using the money cut from LDH to fund TOPS at 80%?” Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) asked. “Yes, ma’am,” the chairman answered. “And there’s even more money for TOPS in the supplemental bill, but you are cutting higher education by $26-million. Are you aware that will impact the classes that will be available for TOPS students to take?” she asked. “You’re talking about a $3-billion overall budget for higher ed, and we’re just asking them to take a $26-million dollar cut,” Henry responded. The first major flare-up of the day occurred a few minutes later, when Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) proposed an amendment to reduce LDH funding even further, in order to put more toward private school vouchers, and supplemental pay for private school cafeteria workers. Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma) got up to object. “I’m a Catholic and I send my children to private schools, but I can’t endorse this,” Magee said. This is a budget about priorities, and we all know the ultimate result of the cuts to LDH will be to gut mental health. I can’t justify fully funding private school lunches when there are so many other unmet needs.” “What about funding Hollywood productions, funding NGOs, horse racing purses? Did you vote to cut them?” demanded Rep. Jay Morris (R-West Monroe), his voice shrill with anger. “Are you making this about some bill you already brought and we voted against?” Magee asked, clearly stunned by the sudden attack. “I don’t remember how I voted on that, since we had like a thousand bills last session. But you’re still upset about it, it seems.” “So your priorities are not to give lunches to private schools, but you’ll vote against cutting NGOs?” Morris asked hatefully. “You’re making this melodramatic,” Magee replied. “But I’m not going to allow your personal attacks, sir.” “Well, isn’t that convenient?” Morris said, as he sat down, still in a huff. While the shouting was going on, Rep. Bacala was in earnest conversation with Rep. Henry. Ultimately, he withdrew the amendment, promising they’d have another chance at it when the supplemental spending bill came up. There was one more raid on health care funding, however. Rep. Franklin Foil (R-Baton Rouge) offered an amendment to fully fund higher education. “It’s an important investment, and the money comes from reducing payments to the public-private partner hospitals,” said the vice-chairman of the Appropriations committee. Despite the fact that that action contradicted HB1’s language prohibiting LDH from making such reductions, the amendment was approved, without objection. In closing on the budget bill, Henry said, “HB 1 appropriates 32.9 billion dollars in total, and matches the State General Fund amount recognized by the REC. I know it’s not perfect, but I ask your favorable passage.” And after getting a 96-6 vote to approve, Henry moved on to the supplemental spending bill, HB 35. “This appropriates the money in Rep. Harris’ bill — as it left here. That’s $396-million. I know the temptation today is to spend the money raised by the Senate, as fast as humanly possible. That money has literally received one committee hearing. I urge you to be very cautious in your desire to spend all this money before it has a substantive debate on that floor or this one,” Henry warned. Once again, Leger was the first to address Henry. “I appreciate the caution you’ve instructed us to have, but you and I have been here ten years, through 452 sessions…” ”453,” Henry interrupted, smiling. “You’re right,” Leger smiled back. “And we know that when we send this over to the Senate, they will spend the money.” “True, but on this side, we can’t be sure of how they’ll change the revenue bill, or how much will be available,” Henry replied. “This supplemental bill spends what money we have confidence will pass. We don’t want to give people false hope that any more than that will exist.” That didn’t stop the parade of proposed amendments: adding money for the Department of Corrections, for workforce rehabilitation services, for public defenders, restoring wildfire-fighting services. Henry objected to each and every one, saying, “It’s a worthy cause, but spending money we don’t have sets a bad precedent” – or some variation thereof. Each amendment, nearly all presented by Democrats, failed. Even an amendment to restore $270-thousand for repairs and maintenance of LPB’s transmission towers failed to win approval. At one point in the proceedings, the Speaker asked, “Mr. Anders, why do you rise?” “Is the pizza coming? My blood sugar is getting low,” Rep Andy Anders (D-Vidalia) complained. “It will be here soon,” the Speaker advised, chuckling. “It’s a big order. But we have just received bologna sandwiches from the Lt. Governor. They’re in the members’ lounge.” Was it a message from Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who was criticized by several GOP House members for having appeared at a pre-session rally with the governor? Or was it a bribe? Whatever it was, it didn’t help, for immediately after the bologna announcement, an amendment was offered to restore funding for state parks. It too, failed. The final amendment of the 26 proposed was to allocate $17-million to restore funding for non-public schools. While Henry objected to this, as well, it got approved, 89-11. And as soon as the full House approved the supplemental spending bill, 96-7, the Speaker announce, “The pizza has arrived.” The full House also considered the Speaker Pro Temp’s budget bill, HB 27. Leger began by amending the bill to make it an exact duplicate of Henry’s HB 1. “This is part of the process, making sure we have a backup. I feel it’s prudent to continue to work on a parallel track,” Leger explained. “I don’t see why we need this,” Rep. Blake Miguez (R-New Iberia) argued. “We have Chairman Henry’s HB 1, and have now sent it over to the other side.” “You have it now,” Leger said. “But we were here for eight days and if I hadn’t moved to discharge the committee, there wouldn’t have been an HB 1. The intent was to leave us no choice but to override the governor’s veto.” “Are you going to bring your own budget bill every time, as long as Henry is chairman?” Miguez asked, aggressively. “That may be necessary,” Leger said, solemnly. “If you remember last year, with 30 minutes left to go in the session, the chairman refused to allow the budget bill to come to a vote. I can guarantee you, this body will be able to vote on a budget, whether it’s to concur, go to conference, whatever is necessary.” “Your bill was amended in Senate Revenue & Fisc last night. Did you have anything to do with that, trying to hijack the entire process?” Miguez asked, with a sneer. “I wasn’t here, and knew nothing about it until I started getting text messages,” Leger replied. “Members, I have a grave concern, based on what I’ve heard both on and off the mic, that there is an intent to make this session fail and force us into a third special session, whether it’s for revenue, the budget, or to address matters that are not on the current call,” the Speaker Pro Temp spoke to the full House. “You know, I don’t think I’ve heard anybody outside this building talk about who the author of the budget bill is. Other bills, yes. But it’s a sign that the budget belongs to all of us, and to all of the people.“ Rep. Henry then rose to speak. “Clearly, the idea is to make sure we have a budget. I appreciate Rep. Leger’s belt and suspenders approach, but it’s not necessary. I guarantee you will have a budget bill to vote on. If you want to concur, knock yourselves out. If not, will go to conference. If the conference committee falls apart, I assure you I will bring the bill back for a vote.” “I hope this bill won’t be needed,” Leger said, on closing. “But just yesterday, we moved two identical bills on the Louisiana Checkbook – one by Rep. Ivey, the other by the Speaker – so this is not unprecedented.” But on a vote of 42-58, Leger’s HB 27 failed to pass. After the full House adjourned, the “Ways to be Mean” Committee met. With bills from both Sen. Jay Luneau (D-Alexandria) and Sen. J.P Morrell (D-New Orleans) on their agenda, there was little doubt the panel would live up to their nickname and try to pay the Revenue and Fisc members back for the prior evening’s out-maneuvering House attempts at strict control of the entire process. Luneau’s SB 6, extending the 2015-passed temporary “haircuts” to business tax credit programs, came up first. Rep. Phillip DeVillier (R-Eunice) asked about the state’s return on investment from economic development incentives. “I don’t have the exact numbers with me,” Sen. Luneau said, “But I know tourism is our best, generating $30 for every dollar invested.” “Did the administration ask you to bring this bill?” DeVillier inquired. “No, I brought it on my own last year, and again this time,” Luneau replied. “Let’s go back to return on investment,” Rep. Jay Morris (R-West Monroe) interrupted. “What about the film tax credit? What’s the return on that?” “Dismal,” Luneau said, attempting to remain agreeable in the face of Morris’ obvious aggression. “I have an amendment that I’m thinking of putting on here, to do away with the film tax credits. What do you think of that?” Morris asked. Chuckling, Luneau said, “If you want to kill the bill, that’ll do…” “Move to defer,” Morris said abruptly. “I do wish you would…” “Move to defer!” Morris said again. “…let me finish my sentence,” Luneau continued, patiently. “Oh, like you did with Rep. Harris last night?” Morris sneered. “I assure you, we allowed Rep. Harris to have his full say,” Luneau replied, with a gentle smile. “But that’s okay. I guess I didn’t expect any courtesy here today.” At that, the committee – which is heavily weighted with hard-line Republicans – voted 11-4 to kill Luneau’s bill. They saved some venom for the Senate Revenue and Fisc chairman, J.P. Morrell, who had two bills before them Thursday afternoon. “SB 8 mirrors the bill Rep. Foil passed on the House floor today, regarding collection of sales tax from remote sellers,” Morrell began. “Rep. Leger had a similar bill,” Rep. DeVillier remarked. “Was he in your committee last night?” (That bill by Leger was the one the Senate committee “hijacked” to become a backup sales tax revenue measure, in case Rep. Harris became utterly recalcitrant over the changes they made to his bill.) “No, he was not,” Morrell answered. “And he knew nothing about what we would do. I remind you that legislative intent is the collective will of the legislature, and not the intent of a particular bill’s author.” “It’s for that very reason I have concerns about moving your bill forward,” Ways and Means vice-chairman Jim Morris (R-Oil City) said. We’ve all seen bills leave here as a blade of grass, and seen them come back as a bale of hay.” “In that case, this bill is in the best hands, since it is in the House. There is almost no danger it will become a bale of hay, since you are in control. I would be more nervous about your bills on our side,” Morrell advised. “You’re suggesting Rep. Foil’s bill will be hijacked, too?” Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) asked. “I am not suggesting any need to hijack any more bills,” Morrell answered. Yet the House committee swiftly dealt SB 8 its coup de grace. Morrell had one more bill to offer, SB 10, to increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. “This is a modest increase of 1.5% to the EITC,” he explained. “Since the backbone of the budget fix is, at this point, continuing our reliance on regressive sales tax, this provides a small measure of relief to our state’s working poor families. And, as many of you are aware, the federal EITC program was created by Republican President Ronald Reagan, in order to encourage people to go to work.” Testimony from advocacy groups followed, though committee members were already familiar with the arguments, having heard – and rejected – similar House bills earlier in the session. Rep. Devillier, addressing Morrell, wanted to know how many Southern states had their own EITC. Morrell told him four: Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, and South Carolina. “But Texas does not?” DeVillier asked. “It’s an income tax credit,” Morrell replied. “Neither Texas nor Florida have state income tax.” Morrell’s pointing out that obvious impossibility seemed to re-ignite the backlash. “Is what came out of your committee your solution to the fiscal cliff?” Rep. John Stefanski (R-Crowley) demanded. “I think it’s the way to start the conversation,” Morrell said, reasonably. “This has begun a dialog – one we haven’t been able to have before this.” “All of y’all seem to think sales tax regressive, and that’s why we chose to make it temporary,” Vice-chair Jim Morris complained. “Yet you made it permanent. How do you justify that?” “My committee chose to do that,” Morrell said. “The expiration date of Rep. Harris’ bill would have election year, and we all know it’s impolitic to consider any kind of tax issues in an election year.” “How many bills in two sessions has your committee received to fix cliff?” Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) asked, attempting to defuse some of the animosity directed at the senator. “Just one,” Morrell replied, at which James remarked, “We haven’t give y’all much to work with, then.” “I have a bill to fix that,” Morrell answered, with a wink. “If we had multiple instruments, we could do separate debates. On who is affected, and whether that is a particular policy we want to pursue. I know many of you are opposed to increasing taxes on business in any way, however with just one sales tax bill, we kind of had to clown car and stuff them all in. “On this particular bill, though, it’s obvious that sales tax is part of the present solution to our giant fiscal crisis, and if we’re going to do that, it’s appropriate to provide some relief for the working poor of our state.” Nope. The EITC bill was killed. And that’s where we stand, going into a working weekend for both chambers, as the session must end by 11:59 p.m. Monday. The House, with a bare quorum of 58 members, convened Friday morning and has since adjourned till Sunday. The Senate Finance Committee is working through the budget Friday and Saturday, with plans for a full floor vote on Sunday. The full upper chamber still has to debate and vote on the sales tax bills (remember, there are two now – one by Harris, and a duplicate by Leger). That vote could come Friday afternoon, Saturday, or Sunday. The clock is ticking, and – so it seems – is the time bomb.
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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.