Last Chance: Put Politics Aside

I’m tired of this crap. There. I said it. Gov. John Bel Edwards is tired of it, too. In his opening address to the third special session this year he was blunt, telling lawmakers Monday evening, “Everyone in this Chamber knows the real reason we’re back here today is not disagreement over policy – it’s politics. Put politics aside and put Louisiana first. Our constituents should not be used as political pawns because a handful of people have decided to play a game of partisan chess with our budgeting process.” Yet after three regular sessions and six special sessions, this seventh match begins with more House GOP leadership maneuvering. Simply put, the special session calls for renewal of some portion of the expiring penny of sales tax, and continuation of the “cleaning” of the other four cents. After only garnering 38 votes on a 70-votes-needed bill to renew one-third of the expiring penny, House Republican hard-liners are now talking up four-tenths of a cent – anything BUT the half-cent needed to fill the budget holes. Of course, the 4/10ths bill has not yet been filed. A so-called “place-holder” bill has been filed by Ways and Means chairman Neil Abramson, but the amount of the sales tax renewal to be considered is blank. No number equals no fiscal note determining how much revenue it could generate. Four bills have been filed to renew half a penny. Each would generate $507-million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and fill the unfunded portion of the budget. And while the Ways and Means Committee will be discussing the sales tax proposals when they meet Tuesday morning, they won’t vote on any of the bills before Wednesday. Because in addition to filing a bill with a missing amount of sales tax, Chairman Abramson is missing in action, as well. He informed the Speaker he won’t be attending the session until Wednesday morning, since he is “out of town.” All this means the full House can’t debate any bills that are the reason for this session before Thursday, at the earliest. In fact, that’s exactly what House Speaker Taylor Barras told Senate President John Alario following the governor’s opening address, and Alario announced to the Senate Monday evening Observing the interaction (and lack thereof) between the Speaker and the Senate President prior to, and just after, the governor’s speech was an interesting exercise in reading body language. When President Alario arrived at the House dais, he walked past Speaker Barras, appearing to intentionally ignore him. Instead, Alario spoke agreeably for several minutes with House Clerk Butch Speer. And every time the Senate president glanced over at Speaker Barras, Alario’s smile faded. When the governor concluded his address and had departed the House, Alario addressed the lower chamber. “Thank you for your hospitality,” the Senate president said, then adding, pointedly, “We look forward to working WITH you over the next few days.” Before Alario could leave, Speaker Barras stepped in front of him and began bending his ear. Alario, unsmiling, hands in his jacket pockets, kept trying to edge past the Speaker. When Barras finally finished, he smiled and stuck out his hand to the Senate president. Alario reluctantly untangled his hand from his pocket and gave a single, perfunctory shake. Yet as he strode off, Barras was still talking, plucking ineffectually at Alario’s sleeve. These overt tensions are tiring, in and of themselves, but what is most fatiguing is the persistent plotting by Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry. This session, his scheme qualifies as a true example of “gamesmanship”, which is defined as “the practice of winning games by questionable expedients without actually violating the rules.” Here’s the deal: the session call allows lawmakers “to legislate with regard to the effectiveness of Section 19.A of the Act that originated as House Bill No. 1 of the 2018 Second Extraordinary Session.” That is the approved and signed budget, and specifically, the part of the budget that deals with what has not yet been funded. It states, “To the extent that sufficient revenues are not enacted in the 2018 Second Extraordinary Session of the Legislature to fully fund each appropriation contained herein, the revenues recognized shall be distributed on a pro rata basis.” They didn’t do it in the second special session, so the wording needs to be amended to include the third special session. Simple, right? Three bills – one each by Rep. Walt Leger (D-New Orleans), Rep. Franklin Foil (R-Baton Rouge), and Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) – have been filed to fix the wording. Foil, it should be noted, is the vice-chairman of the House Appropriations committee. But Chairman Henry has a different plan. His bill adds the third special session wording, but then lists a priorities for full funding, rather than divvying up equally any revenue raised in this session. In his order of preference, TOPS is fuly funded first, then Go Grants, then the colleges and universities. After that comes non-public K-12 education, followed by supplemental funding for DAs and Assistant DAs, then supplemental pay for constables and justices of the peace. The dollars needed for the state to run the federal SNAP Benefits program (food stamps), or to pay sheriffs for housing of state inmates aren’t priorities in Cameron Henry’s world. Neither is keeping veteran’s cemeteries open, or keeping the National Guard armories and bases open and ready to respond, now that we’re in hurricane season again. Last week, Henry had indicated he intended to try and open up the entire budget for revision, presumably with an eye to re-apportioning some of the money now allocated to the Louisiana Department of Health. Although the restrictive wording of this special session call doesn’t appear to permit that, first up when Appropriations meets this morning is “Discussion of the Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget including Louisiana Department of Health.” Ten days. I can hang in there for ten days more of this, I guess. But during that ten days could we, as Gov. Edwards said in his address, “Put politics aside and put Louisiana first. Turn a deaf ear to the out-of-state special interest groups who threaten to influence our discourse”? As he also said, “We’ve been teetering on the brink of the fiscal cliff for too long, and the clock is winding down. We will start the next fiscal year on July 1 whether or not we fix the cliff. The time for politics and partisanship is over. The time for solutions is now. No more excuses.”