Who will pay? A look at tax bills approved by Louisiana lawmakers in special session _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- The Louisiana State Capitol from North Third street.

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, at 90, has many times demonstrated the wisdom of one of his favorite sayings, a Chinese proverb: Wait by the river long enough, you’ll see the bodies of your enemies float by.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is nearly half the old man’s age. Trouble is, the second Edwards is in a torrent, not an LSU lazy river, and he is wrestling with his enemies while both are flowing toward the budgetary equivalent of Niagara Falls.

That is when the June 30 replace-by date comes for more than a billion dollars in taxes, agreed to in the wake of the fiscal collapse left by the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Jindal is one body that John Bel Edwards has seen float by. The former is almost finished in politics, not just because of his clumsy campaign for the 2016 presidential nomination, but also because of blame for the state’s catastrophic financial situation.

The root of the problem is the overthrow of the Stelly Plan, the tax reform that was approved by voters in 2002. Stelly’s plan “swapped” permanent cuts in sales taxes on the necessities of life — groceries and residential utilities — for increases in the income tax.

With repeal of the budget-balancing income tax increases in 2007 and 2008, years of fiscal instability followed under Jindal. Lawmakers were supposed to rewrite the tax code in several special or fiscal sessions to end the temporary sales tax. Supposed to, and didn’t.

The problem is not just with the swiftness of the financial current but the reality that politicians rarely like to admit error. One who has the integrity to do so is former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who acquiesced in Republican-passed bills that started to unwind the income tax provisions of the Stelly Plan. A mistake in 2007, she admits now, but in 2008 greater damage was done with income tax cuts.

Temporarily flush with hurricane recovery sales, Jindal and legislators — including one John Bel Edwards of Amite, then in the House — cavalierly flushed away income tax revenues that they would need desperately only a year later. They’ve been reluctant to restore them since, fearing for their own political safety.

Edwards now recognizes the overriding need for a Stelly 2.0, including restoring in whole or part the steeper brackets for income tax payments and trimming deductions for itemizers on federal income taxes.

Those were two key elements in the Stelly Plan. Restoring the Stelly brackets will take a simple majority in the House, 53 members, instead of a two-thirds vote. And that’s still only part of the whole.

The governor told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that he’s got about 56 or 57 House members backing tax reforms, but getting to 70 votes for a full package requires the leadership of the chamber to help. The state has about $3 billion to $4 billion in the general fund that is really discretionary, the governor said; cutting a full billion or more would devastate colleges and health care, among other services.

So far, the House leaders seem to be such poor swimmers that they believe the falls won’t take them with the governor. Could be a lot of bodies in the water if the swim team does not get synchronized — in a hurry.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.