Titanic Disaster

“This was a sad night for the people of our great state,” Governor John Bel Edwards said, after the second special session ended with passage of a budget, but no substantial revenue to replace the $1.4-billion in temporary taxes dropping off the books the end of this month. Despite their attempts to advertise this venture as “unsinkable,” a close look and listen to the House Republican leadership, who engineered this disaster showed they left their blueprints out in plain sight. In a series of slickly produced videos, they bragged in advance about what they intended to do. Speaking of this session the day before it started, House Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry said, “We’ll see how productive that is.” On the first day of this session, Speaker of the House Taylor Barras predicted, “It seems that the Governor was determined to set us up to fail.” And GOP delegation chairman Lance Harris telegraphed the message they would use to explain their intransigence on the topic of replacing expiring revenue, saying, “We’ve held the line and saved the people of our state.” Sure, they made it seem like they were playing nice, with Harris authoring what was to be the showcase revenue-raising bill of the entire endeavor. But it was an elaborate ruse, albeit one that Rep. Walt Leger (D-New Orleans), the Speaker Pro Temp of the House, anticipated. Throughout the special session he endeavored to warn of – and provide lifeboats for – the intentional sinking of the ship of state. House votes on Senate changes to Henry’s budget bill, to Harris’ sales tax bill, and to Rep. Katrina Jackson’s HB 18 were the initial and primary order of business Monday. Yet just minutes after the full House convened Harris sent out a tweet about the status of negotiations: “Met with @LouisianaGov this morning. Told him @LAHouseGOP was sticking to 1/3. #LaLege” The full Senate had, the day before, amended HB 27 to raise the partial renewal of the expiring penny of sales tax from one-third to one-half of a cent, raising a total of $540-million toward fixing the $648-million fiscal cliff. It would be more than two hours before Rep. Cameron Henry brought up HB1, the budget bill, for a concurrence vote. “Members, I ask that we reject the Senate changes. If HB1 passes as it is now, it’s not the best thing for our state,” the Appropriations chairman said. “For example, TOPS is fully funded now, but only if we pass all the revenue bills. I would prefer to pass revenue first and then hit the spending target. Rejection will let us do these together.” “We have less than 12 hours remaining,” Leger said, as he rose to question Henry. “Do you intend to reduce what’s appropriated when you’re in conference committee with this bill?” “This bill assumes we will raise $586-million, and spends all of it,” Henry responded. “If we run short on time we can keep it all in and simply add language that makes reductions by a pro-rata share.” “But a few days ago, you got up here and made a promise to let members vote on the budget,” Leger reminded him. “How does taking it to conference committee really do that?” “I assure you, if it comes down to the wire, at 11:45, I will walk up here and say I’ve had a complete change of heart – that this is the greatest bill ever – and I will ask you to concur on the Senate amendments.” Rep. Rob Shadoin (R-Ruston) then rose, and said, “I would like to accelerate Rep. Henry’s epiphany and not wait till 11:45 tonight. We have hashed and rehashed this for months, and it seems like the Senate has come up with a very good compromise.” But Henry insisted he would consult with all of the House members, and not restrict the discussions to the three members of the conference committee. (Thus maintaining his power and control over the process.) Leger urged the House to act differently. “Let’s get this item checked off our agenda right now, and move on to the revenue bills. That’s success for the people of Louisiana you represent. There’s no need to wait until tonight to pass this bill.” Rep. Julie Stokes (R-Kenner) asked, “What happens if the revenue doesn’t pass? I mean, there are words being said out of the public’s hearing that the intention is to blow this whole thing up.” “There is already a provision in the bill that if not fully funded, there will be pro-rata cuts,” Leger answered. “If you are confident that it will all work out, you can wait.” “I fear that there is a greater chance it will blow up if we concur on this right now,” Stokes said, ruefully. With that, the House voted 80-18 not to concur in the Senate’s budget amendments, and they went to recess, continuing off-the-record small group gatherings over the issues and bills at stake. In essence, they were re-arranging the deck chairs. Five hours later they returned to public discussion, and the House called up Rep. Katrina Jackson’s HB 18. As originally drafted, it would extend limitations on income tax credits for taxes paid to other states. The Senate had amended it to also increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for low income working families. “While the House leadership may not approve, I move we concur in the Senate amendments,” Jackson (D-Monroe) announced. “Each of us has 25-percent or more of our constituents who will qualify for this.” Rep. Scott Simon (R-Abita Springs) asked the Speaker for a ruling whether the EITC was germane to the bill. “On Senate amendments to House bills, I cannot rule on the question of germaneness,” Speaker Barras said. “I can give you my thoughts, however. Rep. Jackson’s bill originally dealt with an income tax credit. The EITC is an income tax credit. If this only involved the House, I would rule it germane.” Yet concurrence failed, 49-53, sending the bill to conference. Consider that the first iceberg sighting. Then they took up HB 27, the sales tax bill. “I ask that you reject the Senate amendments,” Harris said, keeping it short. On a vote of 97-5, the House agreed. And another recess for the House. The Senate, with little they could act on until the lower chamber took action, spent most of the day “at ease” while observing the dithering in the House. When, after dark, they trudged in to their chamber, one reporter asked Senate President John Alario how it was going. “Not good,” he answered. Senate business at this point was simply to make official appointments to the conference committees. After naming Sens. Johns (R-Lake Charles, Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) and LaFleur (D-Ville Platte) to the committee on the budget, Alario said, “Members, if you are on a conference committee, do your best to get it resolved, Sen. LaFleur.” Thereafter, senators became visible, crossing Memorial Hall to the House chambers, then back to the senate side to report on progress or the lack thereof. In the House itself, Rep. Katrina Jackson took the floor to make a motion. “Members, I have been informed we will not be able to get a conference committee report on my HB 18 with the EITC still in it. It’s very clear that this bill has the process locked up, and so I move to discharge the bill from the conference committee.” Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) objected, raising his voice to ask, “We rejected this bill once already. How many times do we have to kill a bill till it stays dead?” – thus confirming Jackson’s assessment. A vote was taken, 52-51, with many House members erupting in protest and accusatory shouting. The Black Caucus was livid, while many white members loudly asked, “Is it over?” They had collided with an iceberg. Once order was restored, the Speaker announced, “A new set of budget and sales tax proposals is being offered and discussed between the House and Senate. While those discussions are ongoing, we’ll stand at ease.” It was 9:48 p.m. In the Senate, it was clear there was deep disagreement over whether this figurative ship would sink. Sen. LaFleur and Rep. Henry, meeting in the back of the Senate chamber, began shouting at one another. Ultimately, Lafleur turned away in disgust, saying, “It’s a waste of our time.” 9:55 p.m., and they were taking on water. Over the next hour, though, agreement was reached on other bills, like the Louisiana Checkbook bill, supplemental spending for the current fiscal year, and supplemental spending for the judicial branch for the next fiscal year. Think of it as an attempt at an orderly evacuation. Then, at truly the 11th hour, they uncovered the lifeboats. The Senate called up HB 12, Rep. Leger’s bill that had been amended to provide a duplicate sales tax measure to Harris’ HB 27, albeit with a more flexible author. On a vote of 32-6, senators sent it back to the House. Meanwhile, Rep. Jackson told that body they had come to consensus on HB 18, retaining the EITC, but pushing the start date back to 2020. By a vote of 54-49, it finally passed – even though the Speaker and Rep. Henry voted against it. Rep. Lance Harris was not at his desk to vote, having slipped out of the chamber, red-faced with anger, as the Senate was taking up Leger’s bill. At 11:17 p.m., House clerk Butch Speer announced HB 12 had been returned from the Senate with amendments, as Leger went to the lectern. “I know you all are apprised of what this bill does, but I will walk you through it quickly. In the Senate, it was amended to mirror Rep. Harris’ bill, and it now generates a half-cent of sales tax. It will generate $507-million in the next fiscal year, and it appears it is the only vote you’re going to get tonight on revenue. “This is your bill. This is your bill to cut taxes by $440-million and cut government by more than $200-million. This is your opportunity to go home and tell the people you serve that you did the job they sent you here to do.” “Why are we doing this bill before Rep. Harris’ HB 27,” Rep. Stokes inquired. “Because on that bill there is no compromising within the conference committee,” Leger stated. This lets us take care of business before the time runs out.” Rep. Seabaugh rose, questioning germaneness. The Speaker answered that, being Senate amendments, he couldn’t rule on whether it was germane or not. Henry got up, asking, “Is this a new sales tax?” “It is extending a half-penny, while eliminating a half-penny,” Leger replied. Rep. Harris then rose to “correct” Leger’s interpretation. “As of June 30th, the fifth penny of sales tax will drop off, so this is actually a new tax that’s a half cent. It is not a renewal,” the House GOP Caucus chairman insisted. “Call it whatever,” Leger said, dismissing the attempt to spin the narrative. “It is 11:30 p.m. on the final day of a session called to generate sufficient revenue to fund priorities. You’re either going to fund TOPS, hospitals, district attorneys and sheriffs, or not. If not, you’re basically telling the taxpayers of this state to fund us, coming back here to do this again.” Requiring 70 votes to pass, the machines were opened. The tally was 64-40 – with the trio of House GOP leadership – Barras, Henry and Harris – all in the no column. The Appropriations chairman then came to the lectern to make a motion. “I move to discharge the conference committee on HB 1,” Henry said. “Given that we don’t have any revenue, what are we supposed to do with the budget?” Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin) asked. “I promised I would do this, no matter what else happened,” Henry answered, with great irritation. “So here you go: House Bill 1 is the greatest thing since sliced bread. No more questions.” “I appreciate that you are bringing this up for a vote,” Leger said to Henry directly, before turning to the full House and add, “I ask that you concur so that we have a budget. We don’t want to go home without doing anything, and so I also ask, as you vote, to consider whether you want to generate revenue to fund this budget.” “Let’s go!” Henry called to the Speaker, who then asked if there was any objection. Hearing none, Henry made his next motion. “I know we’re short on time,” he said, then added – through gritted teeth, “I ask that you concur with the Senate amendments.” They voted 66-38 to concur. It was 11:48. Rep. Lance Harris announced they now had a conference committee report on HB 27, with five of the six conferees in agreement. It would now generate one-third of a cent in renewed sales tax, raising right at $400-million dollars, as his bill had originally intended. It also would sunset in 2024. Republicans rose to ask questions, clearly attempting to stall for time. Rep. Sam Jenkins (D-Shreveport) asked to call the question. The Speaker, continuing the charade, told Harris he had the right to close on the bill. “I would appreciate your favorable passage,” Harris said, elaborately slowing his usual rapid-fire speech pattern. “This is not perfect, but it is something. And that’s better than going home with nothing.” Machines were opened, and when the vote was tallied, it failed: 38-66. In a final effort, Rep. Julie Stokes made a motion to reconsider HB 12, Leger’s sales tax bill. Though Rep. Harris objected, the body quickly voted, 56-48 to reconsider. “Vote for the bill,” Leger said, simply. Yet the Speaker called on Rep. Seabaugh, who moseyed up to the lectern, and declared unabashedly, “Yes, I am trying to run the clock out. This body has spoken.” From behind him, Stokes said, “You’re trying to kill it!” “Yes, I am,” Seabaugh acknowledged. “Then it’s on you!” she told him, furiously. “Yes, it is,” he said, with a proud smile. And the Speaker announced, “Members, it is 12 a.m.” Rep. Andy Anders (D-Vidalia) came forward to say the ceremonial last rites. Yet he deviated from the usual script. “When you get home, you think what you’ve done. Think hard!” the usually laid-back dean of the House said, irascibly. “Move to sine die.” At his post-session press conference, Governor John Bel Edwards did not mince words. “We have folks in the legislature that are irresponsible,” he said, unequivocally. “It is a total collapse of leadership, when the Speaker of the House voted against the bill that 64 members voted for, then wouldn’t let it come back up.” Now we await the call for yet another special session later this month – one which will cost we, the taxpayers, $60-thousand dollars per day that the state can ill-afford. In the words of the late, great singer-songwriter Harry Chapin: “We’re in the dance band on the Titanic. Sing ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ The iceberg’s on the starboard bow. Won’t you dance with me?”