Budget bill debate 050417

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, right, and Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, during debate about amendments to the state’s operating budget bill on Thursday, May 4, 2017.

Advocate photo by Mark Ballard

A cruel joke on Gov. John Bel Edwards is that many of his tax bills would pass, even in a GOP-controlled Legislature. That is, if only a majority were required.

Instead, the Louisiana Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of House and Senate to raise revenues, even when the increase in taxes in one bill is completely offset by a reduction in taxes in another.

At the State Capitol, the gridlock over taxes is reasonably ascribed to increased partisanship, with the relatively new GOP majorities in House and Senate at odds with the Democrat Edwards.

But the two-thirds rule gives the minority a veto, as Democrats in the House demonstrated the other day by blocking the two-thirds majority needed on one of the bills in the capital outlay process. One can wonder if the public likes to hear the governor's party act on the principle of two wrongs make a right.

If the governor is taking something of a beating in this session, it is because the leadership of the GOP caucus in the House is doing a good job of keeping its members in line. Some of its members are pushing Edwards-backed tax bills but — acting like Washington wanna-bees — the GOP leadership seems determined to kill anything with Edwards' name on it. So far, their members are obeying the party whip — and behind the scenes, the threats are almost of physical whippings.

It is a budget policy based on chaos and obstruction, enabled by the two-thirds rule, because Edwards is the only Democrat in statewide office and the party wants to take him out in 2019.

What's the dirty secret in all this? The GOP caucus is hardly the united front that it seems to be.

Even with the growth of the GOP in recent times, the Republicans are not in the position of the Democrats in the decades from the end of Reconstruction to the 1970s. Almost all voters were Democrats; the party's primaries were the "real" elections, and quite often a GOP candidate did not run at all.

But that didn't mean Democrats were united. The segregationist Willie Rainach from north Louisiana was not the same kind of Democrat as New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Morrison, nor were the Longite populists on the same page with the business-oriented moderates in the same party. In more recent times, contrast Edwin W. Edwards with E.L. "Bubba" Henry, both Democrats in those days; Henry's House was often balky for the governor, with the two-thirds votes difficult to round up, even for a master of the legislative black arts like Edwards.

Today, the GOP majority in the Legislature includes a number of members who are not "moderates" in the sense of social issues like abortion. Rather, they represent poor areas that desperately need a functioning state government. "Starving the beast" of government isn't practical decision making or even a winning political strategy for them; many are former members of city councils or school boards, who understand that the good government can do is dependent on paying the bills.

The hard line ideological tilt of the caucus is perhaps best epitomized by Cameron Henry, of Metairie, who was not elected speaker last year by his fellow Republicans, who opted for Taylor Barras, of New Iberia, instead. But in the budget battles, it is Henry's line, and that of Lance Harris of Alexandria, the caucus chairman, that holds so far.

Will it hold indefinitely? Business conservatives, usually a natural fit, are shakier; budget chaos is bad for business, and the Louisiana GOP's opposition to new road taxes is offensive to them. A 46-44 vote of the party's central committee condemned the gas tax bill, showing how deep a split there is on the roads issue even among the partisan leaders.

The practical Republicans have been held in the Henry line for a while, but the "party of government" includes many GOP members. Today's Gov. Edwards might yet win some of the tricks in the last-minute wheeling and dealing of this session.

His challenge, for the revenues needed to reform the tax code in full, is to spend the summer coalition-building before calling members back. If there is not public pressure to put the budget crises behind us, what votes will change in the Legislature? Some might, maybe, because of hard feelings engendered during this almost fruitless wrangle that ends next week.

Even today, if there was a free vote in the House, a majority would probably end up on an Edwards-backed compromise on taxes, but it takes two-thirds, or 70 votes — a hard climb, without outside pressure.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.