An effort to overturn Gov. Bobby Jindal’s veto of a cigarette tax renewal died in the House on Thursday after 11 legislators bolted to the governor’s camp on the issue.
The lawmakers’ switch means the state’s 36-cent cigarette tax is scheduled to drop by 4 cents next summer.
“There are strong opinions on both sides of this issue. I’ve been consistent throughout the process that I’m opposed to tax increases. I do appreciate the House not overriding us,” the governor said in a prepared statement after the vote.
The vote on making Jindal the third Louisiana governor in modern history to have a veto overturned fell short by 12 votes. Fifty-eight legislators voted to override the governor’s veto. Seventy votes were needed.
Forty-four representatives voted to let the veto stand, including 11 who voted in favor of sending the renewal to the governor’s desk in May. Seventy representatives voted for the renewal then.
The tax generates $12 million a year for the state. Supporters wanted to leverage those dollars to attract nearly $50 million in federal funds for health care.
Several of those who originally voted for the renewal said in interviews after the ballot that they voted against the override out of respect for Jindal.
“I don’t agree with him on this issue, but I don’t want to embarrass the governor,” state Rep. Tom McVea, R-St. Francisville, said on why his stance shifted.
State Rep. Kay Katz voted in step with McVea. Like McVea, Katz voted for the renewal when it passed the House only to vote against a veto override.
Afterward, Katz, R-Monroe, demonstrated what she called her “princess wave” to news reporters, refusing further comment as she walked to the elevator while fluttering one hand in the air.
Baton Rouge Republican state Reps. Steve Carter and Hunter Greene voted for the tax renewal on final passage, but changed their votes Thursday and supported Jindal’s position to let the 11-year-old tax expire next year.
Lafayette state Reps. Nancy Landry, a Republican, and Joel Robideaux, who has no party affiliation, also changed their votes.
Other switchers from last month were state Reps. Robert Billiot, D-Waggaman; Bubba Chaney, R-Rayville; Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro; Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe; and Thomas Willmott, R-Kenner.
The normally noisy House chamber fell silent during the nearly 90 minute debate on the governor’s veto of House Bill 591 by state Rep. Harold Ritchie.
State Rep. Dee Richard’s hands shook as he stood at the podium to speak in favor of rejecting the governor’s veto. Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, confessed that he feels more comfortable addressing the chamber when the audience is less attentive.
Legislator after legislator — both Democratic and Republican — rose to urge their colleagues to reject the governor’s veto. Not one lawmaker defended Jindal’s position that the renewal amounts to a tax increase.
“My seatmate has said repeatedly, ‘Is no one going to go down and defend the governor on this?’ Damn, y’all, I can’t. And why? Because this does not make common sense,” said state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport.
Some legislators offered very personal reasons for their support of the renewal. They talked about parents and siblings who smoked and died from the addictive habit.
State Rep. Hollis Downs said he would dishonor his father’s life if he cast a vote to lower the tax on a product that led to his death from emphysema.
“I have no desire to oppose our governor, not now, not ever,” said Downs, R-Ruston. “But members, this veto is not the fruit of wise leadership.”
State Rep. Jeff Arnold’s phone rang when he reached the lectern on the House floor for his turn at speaking on the veto override attempt. “Members, that was your conscience calling,” he said.
Legislators and their staff sat up straighter in their seats when state Rep. Ernest Wooton strode to the microphone. Wooton, No Party-Belle Chasse, has a reputation for delivering entertaining remarks.
Wooton said he found little humor in the renewal issue. He suggested the Jindal administration played politics with projects and leadership positions to fend off a veto override.
“I want to hope there weren’t any threats made,” Wooton said. “I want to hope that Santa Claus is real.”
House Speaker Jim Tucker. R-Terrytown, went even further, stringing together the veto with the speculation over the governor’s national ambitions.
“I believed in this man; I always have. I want him to be president, but he’s wrong on this, and it pains me to say it,” Tucker said.
Ritchie, the bill’s sponsor and a smoker himself, said he never wanted the issue to implode into a possible override of the governor’s veto. He said he tried to reason with the Jindal administration to no avail.
He said the 4-cent tax generates $12 million a year for the state and could generate roughly $50 million for health care if it is leveraged to attract federal dollars.
Ritchie said Jindal offered higher taxes as a possible solution in 1997 for escalating health-care costs related to smoking. At the time, Jindal was secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
“What the governor has done with this veto is repudiate his life’s work,” Ritchie said.
In the end, Jindal won the day as his top aides watched from a back corner of the House chamber.
Andrew Muhl, government relations director for the American Cancer Society of Louisiana, said the governor’s political ambitions contradicted his belief in the bill’s health and fiscal benefits.
“He’s single-handedly made cigarettes more affordable. We will continue to advocate for reducing tobacco use in Louisiana,” Muhl said.
Fannin was one of the few Democrats to vote against the override after voting in favor of the renewal.
Fannin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he does not understand the governor’s opposition to a 4-cent renewal. But, he said, he did not want to defy the governor.
“I committed to try to work with the governor. I’m going to work with him,” Fannin said.
McVea, who is term-limited, said the tax will be in place for another year. He said he hopes a new batch of legislators can change the governor’s mind.
“This thing doesn’t go out until next year,” he said. “They’ve got another legislative session to address it.”
Voting FOR overriding Jindal’s veto (58): Mr. Speaker and state Reps. Abramson, Anders, Armes, Arnold, Aubert, A. Badon, B. Badon, Baldone, Barras, Barrow, Bishop, Brossett, Burrell, Carmody, Danahay, Dixon, Doerge, Downs, Edwards, Foil, Franklin, Gallot, Gisclair, Hardy, Harrison, Hazel, Henderson, Hill, Hines, Honore, G. Jackson, M. Jackson, Johnson, R. Jones, S. Jones, LaFonta, Lambert, LeBas, Leger, Ligi, Lopinto, Monica, Montoucet, Moreno, Norton, Nowlin, Pope, Richard, Ritchie, Roy, G. Smith, P. Smith, St. Germain, Thibaut, Thierry, Williams and Wooton.
Voting AGAINST overriding Jindal’s veto (44): State Reps. Billiot, Burford, H. Burns, T. Burns, Carter, Champagne, Chandler, Chaney, Connick, Cortez, Cromer, Dove, Ellington, Fannin, Geymann, Greene, Guinn, Henry, Hensgens, Hoffmann, Howard, Hutter, Huval, Katz, Kleckley, LaBruzzo, Landry, Little, Lorusso, McVea, Morris, Pearson, Ponti, Pugh, Robideaux, Schroder, Seabaugh, Simon, Smiley, J. Smith, Talbot, Templet, White and Willmott.
NOT Voting (3): Reps. Guillory, Richardson and Stiaes.