Shortly after midnight and following the implosion of the second extraordinary legislative session this year, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards delivered a stinging rebuke against a small number of House Republican leaders whose strategy of perpetual brinksmanship has, once again, placed the state on the verge of financial insolvency, potentially jeopardizing billions of matching federal dollars and threatening the jobs and daily lives of hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class families.
“We have a group of leaders in the House who are irresponsible,” the governor said, later mentioning both State Rep. Lance Harris (R- Alexandria) and Speaker Taylor Barras (R- New Iberia) by name. What occurred that evening, during the final hours of a fiscal session tasked with both passing a budget and restoring the necessary $648 million in temporary revenue set to expire on July 1st, “is unworthy of the people of Louisiana,” he said.
As in the regular session, a woefully underfunded budget, authored by House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry (R- Metairie), did eventually pass; however, it’s essentially toothless, nothing more than a cynical political stunt and an exercise in futility: Louisiana doesn’t even have nearly the revenue necessary to pay for Henry’s budget, but even if it did, Henry is relying on estimates that appear to be entirely contrived.
Gov. Edwards referred to these legislators, including Henry, as members of “that distinct, hardcore Caucus of No standing in the way of the people of Louisiana.” In February, Sue Lincoln of The Bayou Brief characterized them similarly as “the Disciples of No,” a euphemism coined by former Democratic Caucus Chair Gene Reynolds (D- Minden).
“Are these ‘Disciples of No’ true believers in the dogma of smaller government being the key to opening the pearly gates of ‘cutting our way to prosperity?’ Lincoln asked rhetorically. “Whatever the motivations are, it appears their tunnel vision is preventing them from seeing the train that’s about to cross the tracks ahead.”
Late last night, that train finally crossed the tracks and directly plowed into what had briefly appeared to be a meaningful opportunity for compromise and resolution. “We were willing to accept what was on the table,” the governor said, but for the second year in a row, a small contingency of House Republicans sabotaged what had seemed to be a broad, bipartisan plan; that plan, among other things, would have reduced the state sales tax by a half-cent and, in order to offset its effects of the remaining half-cent sales tax on poor and working class families, it also included a modest increase in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which would have benefitted more than 500,000 Louisianians.
Already, Republican political operatives are arguing the intransigence of their leaders reflected the will of the public. “The people of Louisiana do not want the sales tax to stay elevated. I don’t know how many special sessions y’all need to figure that out,” tweeted Chris Comeaux, the former campaign manager for Republican Congressman Clay Higgins (R- LA03).
But it belies some basic truths: Democrats had been largely opposed to increasing the state sales tax rate two years ago, but because Republican legislators refused so much as to even entertain increases in personal and corporate tax rates, that left the state with only one option: A temporary, one-cent increase in sales taxes, which was much more agreeable for many Republicans, particularly those who are politically beholden to the state’s most powerful lobbying organization, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Remember, the only reason this tax was even necessary in the first place is because, two years ago, the newly-elected governor inherited a $1.3 – $1.8B structural deficit from his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. In the intervening years, Republican legislative leaders have done absolutely nothing to address the real underlying issues. Thus, we are once again right back where we started.
Two weeks ago, State Rep. Barry Ivey (R- Central) gave a cogent explanation to Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne during a House Ways and Means committee meeting. “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.”
He then added, “I realize why Louisiana is shaped like a boot. It’s because we are the kick-the-can state.”
And there’s another fatal flaw in Comeaux’s claim. As Chris Frink, the Director of the Louisiana House Democratic Caucus pointed out, “63 House members and 32 Senators voted for a temporary 1/2-cent sales tax to fund the basic needs of Louisiana’s people. That’s a sizable majority.” Frink is referring to Walt Leger’s HB12, which had actually received 64 yea votes; the House’s website appears to misreport the total yeas as 63 (though it is possible a legislator subsequently made a motion to change their vote).
It’s not an exaggeration to argue that a small contingency of House Republicans have effectively hijacked the state’s government and actively sabotaged any meaningful attempt at compromise by preferring tp play politics instead of seriously addressing policy, even if it requires these members simply invent their own math.
“(This is) the height of irresponsibility,” Gov. Edwards said, later adding, “The Speaker of the House voted against a bill that 64 members wanted and then refused to let that bill come back up.”
If you missed it, here are the final moments of the second extraordinary session.
A reporter asked Gov. Edwards what he thought of the final moments “when there was an attempt to block a reconsideration of House Bill 12.”
“It’s a crying damn shame,” the governor said. “It was obvious that the move they were making to try to go back to Lance Harris’ bill, the one that only got 34 (sic, 38) votes had failed. They knew that if they didn’t bring back the other bill they had, the Walt Leger bill and pass it, they were going to be coming back for another special session, and they still chose to do that anyway. I will just tell you it was a total collapse of leadership.”