The sharpness in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ voice at the close of the special session last week and the frustration that welled in the eyes of Senate President John Alario can be traced back to the “Gang of No.”
Called a number of names during the legislative session — “Gang of No” is one of the more polite — they are 21 representatives sitting, literally, in the right wing of the House chamber, who consistently blocked efforts to raise revenues. They’re all Republicans, but from different parts of the GOP: conservative Christians, tea partiers, pro-business supporters and small government ideologues.
They voted “Nay” in at least 20 of the 22 seminal votes, including those that changed tax exemptions, rolled back deductions on income tax returns, increased taxes on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages and added another penny per dollar in sales taxes.
They killed a half dozen bills and their intransigence pushed the Legislature’s session to the last minute. Of the more than $1.2 billion in taxes raised for next fiscal year, about $800 million was approved with only 97 seconds left before the session was legally required to adjourn.
While party leaders talked of the need for attacking the worst budget crisis in a generation by raising revenues and cutting spending, the “Gang of No” said no tax increases, period; no negotiations necessary.
“I was sent here to represent my district. The majority of the emails I got said, ‘Stop spending so much money,’” said Rep. Valarie Hodges, of Denham Springs. “I’m not going to raise taxes until we fix our outdated system of government.”
Three different male colleagues got in her face. “It’s a tenuous time when a so-called Southern gentleman feels empowered to threaten a woman over a vote,” Hodges said.
Baton Rouge Rep. Rick Edmonds said the members weren’t organized and definitely not coordinated. They could only identify each other from the red lights on the tote board that records “No” votes.
Just a few months ago, Edmonds was knocking on doors in the predominantly white subdivisions of the southeastern portion of East Baton Rouge Parish. The people he met on the campaign trail told him not to vote to raise taxes. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room when you look someone in the eye and shake their hand,” Edmonds said.
Democratic Rep. Sam Jones, who wanders the aisles of the House chamber recording how legislators lean, said he finds House Republicans have Balkanized into ideological factions. They follow no leader. What he called the “practical” Republicans were the only ones willing to negotiate. But their numbers weren’t always enough to win the day.
It’s simple math, explains House Democratic Caucus Chairman Gene Reynolds. The House has 104 members — usually 105 but Baton Rouge Rep. Ronnie Edwards, a Democrat, died at the start of session. Any bills that raise taxes need 70 votes. With 20 or so automatic “Nays,” only 15 more are needed to kill off tax increases, which is not a high hurdle.
“Art of the possible, my friends, art of the possible,” was how Rep. Walt Leger III would answer repeated questions about why his legislation would only increase the tax on cigarettes by 22 cents to $1.08 when the national average is $1.61.
Poll after poll shows a majority of Louisiana voters — many of the same ones who would man the barricades if their taxes went up — were perfectly fine with dinging smokers.
But Leger, D-New Orleans, faced intense opposition from big tobacco, too.
Cigarette manufacturers stopped pressing when, reportedly, the Edwards administration promised not take another run at raising cigarette taxes. Still, Leger had a problem getting enough votes in the House. He pulled House Bill 14 from five scheduled votes after checking Jones’ tick sheets. HB14 passed on the sixth scheduled ballot, but only by four votes. The Senate approved the measure without making any changes — though it was apparent that the senators wanted to alter the bill — to avoid a repeat vote in the House to concur in changes.
Edmonds praised the efforts of fellow legislators, many of whom were new to the game. Their first exposure to legislating came a month of being inaugurated, when they were asked to do something — raise taxes — they philosophically opposed. The governor limited the topics of the session to fixing the immediate deficits.
Edmonds predicted Edwards would have more success when the focus turns towards revamping the state’s financial structure, which gives away more incentives than is collected in taxes and restricts flexibility on what services get funding.
It’s not as hard as raising taxes, Edmonds said, adding, “There would an appetite for really strong tax reform.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/