Louisiana’s intransigent Gov. John Bel Edwards and his fellow Democrats made yet another costly special session all but inevitable last week, with help from a few Republicans.
Edwards had called the most recent special session claiming state government needed about $650 million in taxes to replace revenue falling off the books this month. The Legislature’s majority Republicans met him more than halfway, despite opposition from within their own party. They offered to reinstitute a third of the penny sales tax expiring June 30. GOP leaders also agreed to continue suspensions of some tax exemptions, generating more than $400 million annually for six years.
To shrink the budget gap even more, legislators approved using one-time dollars from a settlement. The Edwards administration said it could reduce health care spending. The result, under the proposed GOP plan, would have left the budget a bit more than $100 million short.
Then more prospective revenue came in from a bill that raised income taxes largely on the middle class and above, although the legislation redistributed most of the money for the next six years to low-wage earners through the state’s wasteful Earned Income Tax Credit. It's a rebate that essentially discourages recipients to work harder and be more productive. Enough House Republicans agreed to back the EITC proposal in exchange for Democrats’ support of their bill, on the assumption that the increased credit could offset higher sales taxes for filers who worked.
But Democrats didn’t see it that way. Instead, they pushed for approval of their own legislation that would put back on the books a half-cent increase in the sales tax. This would have yielded more $500 million annually for six years, making the difference between the two proposals a little more than $100 million. GOP senators conceded to let the Democrats’ version go to the House because it made the tax temporary and gave the other chamber something to work with less than an hour to go in the session.
They had to proceed in this order because Senate conferees for the GOP bill appointed by Senate President John Alario — a majority of Democrats from a Republican-majority chamber — wouldn’t agree to move forward with it until the Democrats’ version received a House vote. Alario, a Republican, is an Edwards ally. The Republican House leadership agreed to let the other party’s bill go first, despite the Senate amending it in a constitutionally suspect manner, leaving it open to future legal challenge.
The bill required a two-thirds vote to pass because it increased taxes. It fell seven votes short. Almost all the Democrats voted for it, joined by about two-fifths of Republicans.
Then leaders moved the GOP version. Because some House Republicans wouldn’t vote for any increase and others allied with Edwards wanted to sabotage the effort, a significant number of Democrats would have to accept the conference report for this to succeed. That didn't happen, with only three Democrats voting yes.
Emboldened, Democrats asked for reconsideration of their measure minutes before the session’s mandated end and received a bare majority to try, but they came up far short of two-thirds approval. While that procedural vote suggested the bill was unlikely to pass, the clock ran out before the vote could occur as members bickered over each other’s motives.
That's how Democrats, aided by rogue Republicans, dynamited the session over $100-plus million. They conspired with Alario to construct and execute a legally questionable process to maneuver through an increase that would give Edwards everything he wanted, while doing everything they could to prevent compromise at around 80 percent of that amount. On top of that, they suckered enough Republicans into assenting to an inefficient wealth redistribution mechanism through 2025 that will happen regardless of any tax increases produced by another special session.
Obstinate Democrats and Republican fellow-travelers now bear the blame for another session’s costs and additional anxiety over unresolved fiscal issues.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.