[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nce upon a time, the Louisiana Legislature got its act together and solved its budget problem – for the nonce.
“This day has been a long time coming, and what we saw over the last few days is a legislature that has found the courage to compromise, and put Louisiana first,” Governor John Bel Edwards said, following the end of the now final session of the year. “It shows that there is far more that unites us than divides us.”
The governor also warned this isn’t really a fairy tale.
“The people of our great state are not going to wake up tomorrow morning finding the Legislature waved some magic wand and all of our problems have gone away. But they’re going to wake up to a state that is poised for real long-term success,” he said.
The Cinderella story of this third special session is, of course, Rep. Paula Davis (R-Baton Rouge) and her determination to stick to the drudgery of grinding out a compromise on the amount of sales tax to retain. She certainly fared better at the ball than her ugly stepbrother Lance Harris did with his 1/3 cent sales tax bill in the previous special session.
Though at times she sounded more like Goldilocks and the Three Tax Rates when talking about her HB 10 (“A half cent is too much; a third of a cent is not enough; .45 of one penny is just right”), her glass slipper fit in the end, passing the House with 74 votes on Friday.
The accord might have shattered, if Davis had not stood up to Rep. Raymond Crews, when he attempted to attach an amendment to her bill in the last moments before the House floor vote. The petite Davis stood her ground, defiantly telling Crews, who towers over her, “No way.”
He withdrew the amendment, which he later explained would have “moved the start date of .45 sales tax from July 1 to August 1, thus giving 1 month at 4 cents after the fifth penny rolled off. Then it would go up to 4.45 cents, to make sure the people know this is a tax increase, not a tax cut.”
On the Senate side, they were mindful of the fragility of that slipper, and kept it cushioned against any changes. As Senate President John Alario put it, “No commas, no periods, no asterisks, nothing.”
The full Senate approved the unaltered HB 10 on a vote 33-6 on Sunday afternoon.
In his post-session press conference, the governor said, “We are still giving nearly a $600-million tax reduction to our taxpayers, as 74 House members and 33 Senate members voted to put our fiscal cliff –finally – in the rearview mirror.”
But in the aftermath of the House vote on Friday, at least one House member was looking in a different reflective device, asking, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most conservative of all?”
Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport), who called Gov. Edwards “a bald-faced liar” on the floor of the House during the first special session this year, then gleefully acknowledged he was running out the clock at the end of the second special session, took to Facebook to castigate Republicans in the House who voted for the sales tax bill.
Posting the roll call from the vote on House passage of HB 10, with Republicans who voted for the measure highlighted in yellow, Seabaugh wrote, “These 32 Republicans caved in to the pressure and voted to raise your taxes. But any report or claim of a ‘deficit’ is fake news. Most of the ‘Republicans’ on this list told their constituents that they were conservative and promised to ‘cut taxes and reduce spending’ when they ran for election. Help us vote these guys out!”
Not to be outdone, our folio of fables also had an appearance by an evil queen, as Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) — who has indicated she’s considering challenging the governor next year — took the occasion of floor debate on the sales tax bill to spread some partisan misinformation and criticize the governor along the way. Here is what she said:
“We’ve spent the last few months debating about how much sales tax to raise, rather than IF we need to raise taxes. And while the agency heads and the lobbyists have dominated the tax debate, what has been left out of the conversation is the everyday taxpayer. They’re going to pay an extra $350-million in state income taxes as a result of the federal changes. On top of that. we’re piling another $500-million in increased taxes as a result of legislation in this special session and the last one. So, spoiler alert to the taxpayers: we’re raising your taxes $850-million this year.
“In return, we’re giving our citizens the largest budget in the state’s history: a whopping $34-billion budget. Growth of our spending is becoming unsustainable. I supported the temporary 1-cent sales tax, because then it appeared we had very few choices. I was willing to give the administration an opportunity to reform tax structure. We committed to change, and here we are, two years later, faced with the same short-term fixes – you know, more taxes.
“The administration has done very little in the area of budget reform. The governor’s decision to expand Medicaid without any consideration for the cost of doing so, has grown the cost of healthcare until it is 41% of our budget. If we don’t rein in cost of health care, Louisiana will be in a constant fiscal crisis. I do not believe the governor has honored his commitment to do any budget reform. For that reason I am not able to support a tax increase.”
Hewitt’s speech was immediately rebutted by Sen. J.P. Morrell, who said, “I rise in support. I and the entire Black Caucus have had reservations on sales tax, and we haven’t hesitated to express them. It just boggles my mind that the talk from the right is as if sales tax is the first thing we went to. This is our last option.
“We – the Legislature – gave ourselves two years to do tax reform, and now you start crying about the ‘poor taxpayer?’ We tried numerous bills, and every one was blocked in committee by the same people saying ‘woe is me’ today.
“You want tax reform? File tax reform bills. A fiscal session is coming next spring, and I look forward to you filing tax reform bills, instead of simply throwing critiques from the peanut gallery cheap seats.”
Gov. Edwards, asked about Hewitt’s grandstanding, remarked, “I’m sorry she chose to give a very political speech on what should have been a celebration by all of Louisiana because we were finally able to come together. Every other speech, in the House and in the Senate, was about Louisiana, about what we’d been able to accomplish in putting the fiscal cliff in our rear-view mirror.
“What she forgot to tell you and people of Louisiana is that I embraced every single recommendation by the Tax Reform Task Force, and every single item recommended was in bills that were filed. The House chose not to pass a single one.
“When she talked about Medicaid expansion, she could not have been further from the truth. We are saving 317-million state general fund dollars this year because we expanded Medicaid. The state portion needed to match the federal dollars is funded by statutory dedications.”
(Edwards, when he was still in the legislature, co-authored 2015’s HCR 75, which established that dedication. His fellow author was then-Speaker Chuck Kleckley, a Republican. They established the Hospital Stabilization Fund via resolution as an end-run around then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, who steadfastly opposed Medicaid expansion.)
“For decades, Louisiana has had too many working poor and too many people uninsured,” the governor continued, responding to Hewitt. “To make health care available for 470-thousand working poor adults in this state, and to save $317-million in the process is simply the right thing to do. If she doesn’t want working poor people to have health care, she ought to just say it. So her talk was long on politics, but very short on facts.”
Overall, though, the governor had praise for the lawmakers who came together, with just 6 days left before the tumble off the fiscal cliff.
“They put partisanship aside and focused on what matters, the people. It shouldn’t have been this hard or taken this long, but now we can look forward to a bright future with stability and predictability in our finances, and reach for the prosperity and opportunity on our horizon.”
And they lived happily ever after – or at least until April 8, 2019, at noon.