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Midsummer Machinations

“There are wheels within wheels, and fires within fires.” – Arthur Miller, The Crucible

‘Twas solstice and House members met
To stir the cauldron of government.
A pinch of penny they’d add to the brew
In order to make enough votes come through.
Ingredients were clear in the recipe book,
But some disagreed, and said, “No, let us look
To the high court for magic. It’s easy and free!
We won’t have to work at conjuring money.”
Throughout the heat of the year’s longest day
They added, subtracted, and looked for a way
Not to fill the pot, although they knew
It was all they were supposed to do.
Across the hall, the Senators waited,
As so often before, and growing frustrated,
They called on their leader, knowing and wise,
To solve the dilemma with guile, and surprise.

As has become the usual pattern, the House convened more than an hour and a half after their scheduled start time. During the delay, the buzz was all about a U.S. Supreme Court decision released that morning, regarding state collection of sales tax from internet vendors – also known as remote sellers – and what it might add to Louisiana’s revenue stream.

When the House gavelled in, after their daily ritual of prayer and pledge and acknowledgment of distinguished visitors, the first of three revenue-generating bills on the docket was called up.

Rep. Stuart Bishop (R-Lafayette), who has been battling a virus for the past several days, trudged to the lectern, shoulders hunched, and looking somewhat the worse for wear.

“Due to the recent Supreme Court decision, and due to the fact that there are not enough votes, I therefore move to withdraw House Bill 4 from the files of the House,” Bishop said.

The Democrats in the House roared, for Bishop’s bill was the only one they supported – and that reluctantly. It started with extending half the fifth penny of sales tax for three years, then dropped down to 4/10 of a penny for three years, then declined to a ¼-cent for two years. It had the highest fiscal note, but would generate $453-million toward the $507-million unfunded budget needs.

“Point of order!” Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) called out.

“State your point,” Speaker Taylor Barras acknowledged.

“It was discussed in committee that it is imperative for us to have a variety of options. Can we override this?” Jackson asked.

“It is our procedure that the author decides, and he has decided to withdraw it,” the Speaker replied.

“Point of order!” Rep. Marcus Hunter (D-Monroe) spoke next. “I want to know if Mr. Bishop will withdraw his name and allow a new author to take over, so the instrument can be discussed!”

“It is our custom that when an author chooses to withdraw a bill, that is what is done,” Barras replied.

“But Mason’s Manual permits such an action, and in the interest of time…” Hunter objected.

The Speaker interrupted, overriding Hunter’s protest, saying, “Following the customs of this House, we do not permit someone else to use an author’s bill against his will.”

A number of House members swarmed the Speaker’s dais then, including Democratic and Republican caucus leaders, and Ways and Means committee members. Following several minutes of intense discussion off-mic, the Speaker announced, “We have a number of motions to discuss, so we will recess for lunch till 1:30.”

They had been in session a total of 18 minutes.

Reporters asked Rep. Bishop to explain why he pulled the bill, and he would only say, “I made the decision in concert with House leadership.”

Having laughingly confessed his shock and surprise that the bill had made it out of committee the previous day, Bishop was a different and discouraged man on Thursday. At the very least, you can be sure he’d been threatened with losing his chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee, if he didn’t remove this bill from consideration.

The time to reconvene came and went, while the far-right ideologues in House leadership sought a sympathetic interpretation of the effects of the Supreme Court decision. They wanted it to magically manifest money. They also searched frantically for a determination of what that amount might be.

They got nothing more than what was stated in the fiscal note for Rep. Franklin Foil’s HB 17, passed during the second special session. That bill aligned Louisiana’s definition of a “remote dealer” with the South Dakota law that was the subject of the Supreme Court case – in anticipation of Thursday’s SCOTUS decision.

The fiscal note stated that Louisiana already collects sales tax from several of the biggest on-line retailers – including Amazon and Walmart. The revenue from those sources only amounts to about $1-million per quarter, or a total of $4-million per year, according to the Louisiana Department of Revenue.

The Legislative Fiscal Office concluded in that note, dated June 8, 2018, “Any particular estimate of the magnitude and timing of possible additional collections is speculative.”

In other words, no pot of gold – only straw.

Meanwhile, the Senate convened, as they’d been promised to receive some House bills Thursday evening. So they waited, as House leadership scrambled to return to their tried-and-true plan: force failure of the session.

The House reconvened and called HB 10 by Rep. Paula Davis (R-Baton Rouge).

“We all know what this does,” she said, “It adds point-4 till 2025.”

Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) offered an amendment.

“This amendment raises the amount to a half-penny,” he said, simply, eliciting quite a few gasps of surprise from members.

Davis objected, saying, “Last time we voted on a third, and we voted on a half, and neither passed. Point-4 is the right number.”

They voted on the amendment, and it passed, 69-31. Notably, the Speaker, GOP Caucus leader Lance Harris, and “no-tax-ever” Reps. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) and Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales) voted in support.

That was the first evidence that this was a scripted scheme.

Rep. Major Thibaut (D-New Roads) the offered an amendment to strip changes that had been made in committee, saying, “We need to keep this bill clean.” That was adopted without objection.

Rep. Davis waived any questions, merely saying to close, “We’ll see how this goes.”

The machines were opened, and when they were through voting, the bill received 60 in favor, 40 opposed. It needed 70 votes to pass.

And you guessed it – Speaker Barras, Lance Harris, Alan Seabaugh, Clay Schexnayder, and Stuart Bishop were in the nine who voted against it.

That was all of the show the Senate needed to see, and while the House recessed for a dinner break, the Senate prepared a new message for the lower chamber.

Now, the Senate has sent unequivocal statements to the House previously, through changes to House bills and budgets. The House leadership, in its laser-like pursuit to brand Gov. John bel Edwards a failure, has failed to truly get the message. And in the course of this single-minded focus, the House has underestimated the Senate – and in particular, its president, John Alario.

This is a man who has served in the legislature for 36 years – since 1972. He has been House Speaker twice and this is his second term as Senate President. He has more institutional knowledge than the entire House of Representatives put together.

In conjunction with Senate Revenue and Fiscal affairs chairman J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans), Alario went to his beloved “typewriter” and drafted a procedural bomb.

SCR 6 pushes back the sunset date on the 5th penny of sales tax for 14 months. As a concurrent resolution, it only requires a simple majority vote in both chambers. Resolutions don’t go to the governor for signature – or veto – instead they go directly to the files of the Secretary of State.

Think of it as the Machiavelli option.

There was a popular bumpersticker a few decades ago – about the time John Alario was first sworn in as a lawmaker, in fact.

“Old age and guile will always triumph over youth and enthusiasm.”

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