Digging In: Entrenchment on the Far Right

One hundred years ago today, U.S. military troops were engaged in the Battle of Belleau Wood. The first major victory for American forces, which joined World War I three years after hostilities began, it was achieved primarily by Gen. James Harbord’s refusal to entrench his troops. Entrenchment to that point had resulted in little movement along the Western Front, but immense attrition of troops on both sides – an estimated 4-million casualties over three years. While many had hoped the two-week furlough between special sessions would remind the Capitol’s combatants who (their constituents) and what (their local colleges, hospitals, and roads) they’re fighting for, it appears the time away from the trenches has hardened some lawmakers’ resolve to dig a deeper hole when they return. Certainly, advocates for higher education, TOPS, and SNAP benefits have been waging an all-out social media campaign to encourage lawmakers to fight for funding these vital programs, while Koch Industries-supported Americans for Prosperity and even Grover Norquist (of the no-tax pledge that persuaded former Gov. Bobby Jindal to help create this mess) have been urging lawmakers to duck-and-cover and hold the line. Take Rep. Jay Morris (R-West Monroe), for example. This week he sent a letter to his constituents, writing, “I have trouble telling the citizens in northeast Louisiana that they must pay more taxes to fund our priorities when, in fact, I think we are wasting money… probably lots of it… and are funding things that probably aren’t the priority of a vast majority of citizens. We spend money subsidizing the Benson family through the Saints and Pelicans, we divert $100 million per year to subsidize horse racing, we subsidize Hollywood to the tune of $180 million per year and we also give exemptions from sales taxes to big business but most small businesses have to pay full freight to name but a few.” Morris, who filed no bills or resolutions attempting to curb these subsidies during this year’s prior three sessions, nevertheless has been pounding the verbal warpath about them, whining repeatedly in committee and on the House floor about “turning a blind eye to waste and continuing to fund questionable priorities.” Because of the restrictions in this call for the third special session, he cannot file any bills to address this. He sits on the Ways and Means Committee, which controls the movement of any tax bill that could alleviate the impending fall off the fiscal cliff. And he is telling his constituents, “Although there is immense pressure to vote for more taxes, I believe we can find other ways to fund government adequately if my colleagues will get up the willpower to take on special interests and the bureaucracies.” Entrenchment. Digging in and going nowhere. Other lawmakers from northeast Louisiana are ready to advance, win the war, and go back to civilian life. Sen. Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) speaking at the Northeast Louisiana Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, said, “It makes no sense not to pass the half-cent sales tax. Not one person has asked me not to vote on a half-cent.” Sen. Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe) said, “Whatever the House sends us, I’m going to vote for it.” Further west along I-20, the ultra-conservatives’ “inactionary hero,” Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport), has his rifle loaded, his polished bayonet fixed, and has settled in to treat his trench foot while awaiting his mustering out. Seabaugh, who proudly admitted his intention to kill the second special session’s last chance for taxes to fix the fiscal cliff, told 710 KEEL radio last week, “People in Louisiana don’t want a tax increase. I’ve heard it over and over and over and over.” You can’t dispute that Seabaugh has heard that… every time he accepts a campaign check from Koch Industries, LABI, or Lane Grigsby. Seabaugh, who is presently being vetted for a federal judgeship, has received $1,000 from Koch, $250 from a LABI PAC, and $500 from a Lane Grigsby-controlled PAC since this term started in 2016. That’s a mere pittance, of course, compared to what his campaign took in from those same sources for the 2015 race: $17,000 from LABI, $2,500 from Koch, and $7,500 from the Grigsbys and their PAC. Is it pay-to-play for Seabaugh? Consider what else he told KEEL regarding his opposition to the half-cent sales tax bill in the most recent special session: “The devil in the details was the cleaning of the other pennies – the removal of the business tax exemptions,” Seabaugh said. “When every economic indicator shows the state is going backward and our businesses are struggling, the last thing you need to do is hit ‘em with another tax increase.” On the other hand, “when every economic indicator shows the state is going backward,” maybe you should try investing more in government programs to improve roads, and schools and health, rather than giving tax dollars to corporations? (As for my earlier reference to treating trench foot, it’s interesting to note that Seabaugh scrubbed all tweets from his Twitter account – five years’ worth – last week.) Contributions from these same groups have spiked for a nominal Democrat, as well. Rep. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans) has been raking in the campaign cash since his 2016 appointment as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Abramson, who is term-limited, received no campaign funding from Koch, LABI, or Grigsby in the 2015 election cycle, despite receiving a 97/100 on his LABI scorecard that year. In 2016, he scored a 38. But his campaign coffers (for an “undetermined election”) have swelled – according to his 2016 and 2017 campaign finance reports –by $1,000 from Koch Industries, $10,000 from LABI PACs, and $5,000 from Grigsby-affiliated PACs. Remember, Ways and Means is the first filter for each and every tax-related bill that’s filed. It will be interesting to see which – if any – sales tax bills escape that committee this time. What about Rep. Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) and Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), the standard-bearers for Camp Obstruction? Henry, who said in a post-regular session video, “The best thing for our constituents is for us not to be in Baton Rouge – to be home, at the grocery stores and churches, and people be able to say, ‘Hey, I really need you to cover this’,” seems not to have spent this furlough doing that. Instead, he’s been in his lab playing mad scientist, cooking up a new way to try and gas the upcoming third special session. The Appropriations chairman wants to reopen hearings on the approved and signed-into-law budget, rather than simply supplementing the budget – which he authored – with any sales-tax supported revenue for the numerous agencies and programs left short due to the fiscal cliff. He says he can do this because the special session call permits a technical change to the budget. As Henry told The Times-Picayune \ NOLA.com’s Julia O’Donoghue, “You can’t open up a section of a bill. It is all of it or nothing.” The budget protects the state Health Department from any additional cuts, whether additional revenue is raised or not. It was written to require equal appropriations of any new revenue to all of the other budget areas facing cuts: higher ed, TOPS, sheriffs’ housing of state prisoners, the food stamp program and more. As the budget stands now, lawmakers can’t pick and choose how much money will go where. “Members may want to give some agencies more money and some agencies less,” Henry told Greg Hilburn with Gannett. “It would be irresponsible to raise money without holding hearings on how to spend it.” Henry is supported in this by House Republican Caucus chairman and Appropriations committee member Lance Harris, who told Hiburn, “The hearings will also allow our members to interview agency heads and see if we can’t find some other savings.” And in the midst of all this, on Monday, U.S. Senator John Kennedy called for Gov. John Bel Edwards to resign, and instead let Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser “take a shot.” Nungesser, if you recall, in collaboration with former LA GOP chairman Roger Villere, fell prey in spring of 2016 to a bogus promise of exclusive rights for Louisiana to process Iraqi oil. The governor’s office called Kennedy’s request “absurd.” One could almost hear the echo of a now-legendary battlefield response given during the Battle of Belleau Wood. After U.S. Marines were repeatedly urged to turn back by retreating French forces, Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines uttered the now-famous retort, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.” How will this entrenchment against renewal of needed tax revenues scar Louisiana, and for how long? It still seems as though a bombing run – changing the Speaker, and with him, the chairmen of both Appropriations and Ways & Means – remains an open avenue to victory. Without that, Louisiana could – like the landscapes of France and Belgium a hundred years later – remain scarred by the trenches that have been dug. In the words of 1st Sgt. Dan Daly, who began the Battle of Belleau Wood by urging his men of the 73rd Machine Gun Company forward, “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”