JohnBelEdwards

Gov. John Bel Edwards unveils his tax and budget proposals on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, for the coming legislative session.

Advocate staff photo by Travis Spradling

When the adults gave the middle-schoolers charge of the cafeteria, they took care to leave a recipe.

Is it any wonder that following directions was too much for the chefs?

This year's food fight at the State Capitol continued down to adjournment Thursday, with the perfectly obvious recipe for tax reform not having been followed.

Instead, the Legislature will reconvene in an inevitable special session on tax reform sometime later in the year, with the same recipe available to them.

The recipe was the recommendation of task forces of experts, who told the legislators to make a series of changes that would make Louisiana's "broken" tax system look more like that of a normal state.

To do that would involve, broadly speaking, raising income taxes and lowering the onerous "emergency" sales tax passed last year to balance the budget. More changes for sales tax administration would allow Louisiana's system to look more like that of a normal state, and be friendlier to businesses.

If anything, Louisiana emerges from this session worse off on the tax front, still with the nation's highest average sales tax, and new complexities of various sorts larded in to the law books at the behest of various special interests. And more than $1 billion in "temporary" taxes expire next year, the "fiscal cliff" we've heard so much of.

The motto of the cafeteria ringleaders: Jump over no cliff before its time.

It's not all on the legislative geniuses, though. Like a seventh-grader who enjoys surprises, Gov. John Bel Edwards, threw in a brand-new "commercial activities tax" that turned out to be a dead CAT on the menu.

The CAT died in the state House, where the "Lord of the Flies" mentality of members is most pronounced.

There is much more adult supervision in the Senate, where President John Alario of Westwego held the body together, mostly. Whether he would have been able to keep senators to the recipe is not known, because the tax bills by law had to start in the House, where everything this year seems to have been half-baked. The basic duty of passing a budget was beyond the House.

Another dramatic failure was the unwillingness of House members to countenance a desperately needed increase in the gasoline tax, unchanged for 28 years. Just about every road in Louisiana shows the consequences of this neglect.

However, the increase bill championed by Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, found a narrow majority on Ways and Means. That's encouraging because it suggests that if Edwards and an energized business community can agree on tax plans, there is the possibility of a hearing beyond the Committee of No chaired by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, even if it is dominated by anti-government ideologues.

That Ways and Means let any tax bills out at all might have been surprising, but the label of "do-nothing" Legislature had been hung on the session by Jim Beam of the Lake Charles American Press, dean of the State Capitol correspondents. Beam called it the most do-nothing session he's seen, and he goes back to 1968. Thus, a handful of tax bills were allowed out of committee, to die later in the process, although few of them followed the recipe from the study panels earlier in the year.

As a Democrat in the cross-hairs of the GOP leadership, Edwards can decide that the mess in the cafeteria is just too much to clean up and stumble along with a decision to renew the sales tax. Even that is dicey, as it takes the same two-thirds "tax increase" vote as real reform bills. Still, some conservatives believe a sales tax fairer, because "everybody pays." This is a legacy of the old racist notion that black folks pay sales taxes but don't have property like the whites do. It was economic insanity even in the old days, more so now, but a do-nothing Legislature this year is implicitly voting for keeping the sales tax as it is.

Is it a good sign that Ways and Means let out a few tax bills? If so, another positive sign is that Democrats on the Senate side refused to back flawed House-passed versions of "reform" bills. The measures would have eliminated some deductions from personal and corporate income taxes, but would not have generated money for the general fund, to end the onerous sales tax. Rather, the money would have been used to cut tax rates within the income-tax silo, by setting a flat income tax rate, another hobby horse of conservatives.

That the Senate balked at those bills shows that at least some members aren't interested in deviating from the recipe. There may be hope for a menu of options later in the year, once the hard feelings from the spring food fight wear off.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.