Gov. John Bel Edwards was dealt a stunning blow politically when a signature piece of his budget proposal, which had been widely panned, was abandoned Tuesday.
Critics had called the proposal, a gross receipts tax plan, over complicated and confusing. Changes were still being made to it up until the moment that it received its first and only hearing.
The anticipated revenue quickly dropped from nearly $900 million to about $200 million, and even the significantly scaled back version couldn't gin up enough support, or even interest, to send it onto the full House for consideration.
"It's hard to put a good spin on it," said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "It reveals the very different relationship between this governor and this Legislature. The governor can no longer just count on allies to carry the water, count votes and pressure people."
Edwards, in reflecting on the Commercial Activity Tax's failure to gain traction, said during a news conference that he didn't think lawmakers were open to fully vetting it.
"The fate of that bill was decided a long time before we unveiled it," he said. "That's pretty sad."
He called on House Republican leaders, with whom he has frequently tousled since his first day in office in January 2016, to come up with their own plan.
"I"m looking for the House leadership to step up and offer solutions, not just continue to say no," Edwards said.
The House Republicans will formally unveil their ideas for the spending side of the budget Monday when the Appropriations Committee takes up the proposal. There is no clear leadership agenda for tax proposals to bring in more revenue or address the looming fiscal cliff the state faces when a temporary sales tax hike ends.
So far, House leaders have indicated their plan includes a "stand-still" budget that won't fund most agencies over what their current spending level is after two midyear shortfalls this year. They also don't plan to spend 100 percent of the money available under current revenue projections, setting about 2.5 percent of the money aside in case the state is faced with another deficit from lagging tax collections.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said he prefers the budget-first approach because the two sides disagree on how much additional revenue is needed. He said he sees that as the first step to try to "move the lines a little closer."
"Right now, they are pretty far apart," he said.
Barras said he wants to give members a chance to vet various tax proposals and get a fuller picture of them, rather than directing one specific approach.
"To try to get a total comprehensive package is something we can build toward and work on," he said. "I think we have the menu that we need to have a healthy discussion. ... My hope is to get a good deal of that to the floor."
The legislative session must end by June 8. Because tax legislation can be taken up in regular sessions only in odd-numbered years, the Legislature likely would have to hold another special session in the coming year if it doesn't solve structural issues over the next month.
Edwards has called three special sessions since taking office. All have dealt with the budget.
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Rep. Gene Reynolds, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said he thinks Edwards' Commercial Activity Tax proposal suffered from bad publicity from the start.
The nonpartisan Tax Foundation think tank has analyzed and criticized such taxes, which tax business transactions instead of income. Conservative groups attacked Edwards and the proposal with digital and television ads.
"It was an important piece of what we were trying to get done. Now we have to scramble and look at some other areas," said Reynolds, of Minden. "It's not a happy time for us, but you take what you get and you move on."
Cross, the political scientist, said he found the approach to selling the proposal unusual.
"The House isn't showing any inclination to do anything big or grand," he said. "So it's not just an ill-fated attempt, it's a tone-deaf attempt."
A legislatively created task force met for nearly a year to weigh the state's tax options and provide a list of recommendations. The gross receipts tax wasn't on the list.
Edwards announced the proposal shortly before session started, and it continued to be finessed until its hearing in committee.
Cross described the roll out as, "clumsy, badly timed, ill considered. ..."
"It was not a shining moment of political acumen," he said.
"You think about how a polished politician would roll things out," Cross said: A monthslong grass-roots campaign effort. A public announcement with enthusiastic supporters flanking the governor.
"It's kind of surprising," Cross said.
Reynolds, meanwhile, said he believes the governor did everything he could to build support.
"I thought they put forth a good-faith effort to get it passed," he said.
He said he's also eager to hear more specifics from the House Republicans about how they want to address the budget, but he's concerned about what he views as a philosophical difference between his caucus and the Republican leadership.
"Government's not a corporation; this is about people," Reynolds said. "You've got to understand when you do things, when you make cuts, there is a consequence."
Edwards has been vocal in where he thinks the breakdown is happening when trying to address the state's chronic budget issues: House Republican leaders, particularly Barras, House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry and House GOP Caucus Chairman Lance Harris.
But Cross said that message might not be very effective in a state that tends to vote overwhelmingly for Republicans.
"I don't think that's a narrative that at the end of the day is going to re-elect him, and I don't think that's a narrative that is going to address Louisiana's budget problems," Cross said. "Regardless of where truth may lay in there."
Cross said consistently pointing to the House Republicans can come across as "defeatist."
"It's fine if you've got voting majorities or if you have an electorate that looks like it could kick all the Republicans out of office in the next election," he said. "There's no indication that's likely to happen."
It's not unusual for governors to face opposition from legislators of the opposing party. After pulling off a surprising upset over Republican rival David Vitter to succeed Republican Bobby Jindal, Edwards plans to seek re-election in 2019, and Republicans have been lining up for the opportunity to challenge him.
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Before Edwards was even sworn in, the House set itself out to be a challenge to Edwards by bucking the unusual Louisiana tradition of allowing the governor to pick the chamber's top leader. Edwards wanted a Democrat in that post. Instead, Republicans rallied behind Barras.
"There was not really a honeymoon period, and we are quickly having to view everything through the lens of the next election," Cross said. "Neither side wants to give the other side a clear victory."
One person who has been in a similar situation is former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican who took office alongside that state's Democrat-controlled Legislature in 2004 after defeating an incumbent Democrat governor.
In an interview with The Advocate, Barbour declined to speak specifically about Edwards or Louisiana's budget and tax policies, but he discussed his own experience facing a House chamber that viewed itself as a failsafe against his plans and policies, as well as his effort to overcome that.
"We didn't try to make things partisan; it was just the opposite," Barbour said. "The last thing we ever wanted was a party line vote — there were more of them than there were of us."
When Barbour took office, the state Senate was more sympathetic and could build support around his proposals, but Mississippi's then-House Speaker refused to name any Republican members to committee chairmanships in his chamber, breaking from a traditional courtesy that allowed the minority party some modicum of authority. The Democratic House leadership at the time also routinely blocked Barbour's priority legislation from getting a vote, even if the Senate had passed the legislation already.
"We tried to be for good policy. We didn't try to make it Republican policy versus Democrat policy. We tried to be what was best for Mississippi," Barbour said, reflecting back on the beginning of his first term. He said he worked to identify Democrats who were moderate or would at least be open to hearing his position before outright objecting.
Barbour had campaigned on pushing a “tort reform” package limiting lawsuits. Though controversial and opposed by a powerful coalition of lawyers, the proposal passed the Mississippi Senate several times. House leadership on multiple occasions declined to even vote on the bill.
Barbour said he went into campaign mode to build support, forcing the chamber to respond to the groundswell of support for the proposal.
"Give the public as much information as possible. Give the Democrats as much information as possible," he said. "I talked about it in every speech."
When it was allowed to move forward for a vote, it overwhelmingly passed the Democrat-controlled House.
"I think one of the reasons we ultimately won is we laid all the cards on the table face up, from the very beginning," Barbour said. "We tried to explain to the electorate and the Legislature, the press: 'Here is what this issue is. Here's the policy we proposed. Here's how we want to go about doing it.'
"The public got sick of it they got so much information."