In literally the final minutes of the session, legislators passed a state operating budget balanced, in large part, by rollbacks of tax breaks and a significant tax increase on cigarettes.
Now, most of the Republican legislators are going home to tread down the campaign trail carrying that heavy budget bundle. They have to explain how after years of pounding the message of lower taxes, the first term of total Republican control of state government since Reconstruction ended with a budget their business community supporters charge is riddled with “tax increases” — the ultimate pejorative in GOP politics.
A peek of how arduous that journey may become came Tuesday when the Republican Party of East Baton Rouge Parish hosted Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria.
The moderator was publisher Woody Jenkins, the local party chairman who served in the House back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, when Republican members never numbered more than 20. Now the GOP has 59 members and a majority in the 105-member House, and Harris is their leader.
It was an afternoon of heavy rain, which kept attendance down, allowing for a more intimate atmosphere, more of a conversation between a dozen or so folks than the formal presentations to the 40 or 50 people who usually show up.
This being Baton Rouge, most of the questions began “I don’t mean this as an insult. …”
Jenkins started by asking Harris what exactly had been cut from the budget. From the get-go, Harris stumbled.
Well, then, why is Southern University New Orleans still open? Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso asked why nothing was done about the growing expense of state worker pensions. Someone else asked why local law enforcement officers receive state supplemental pay.
“We are where we are today because of irresponsibility,” Harris said. “We spent one-time money on recurring expenses. Our choices are now this. We have to make a choice.”
“Y’all are the reason, aren’t you?” Cecil Cavanaugh asked Harris. He’s an accountant who also is a Tea Party of Louisiana member.
“You throw rocks when you’re out of office. It’s all simple, black and white,” Pearson Cross, of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said later about the dilemma facing Republican lawmakers who seek re-election. “But when you get in office, insurgents discover the realities of trying to keep the roads unclogged, the streets safe and the schools good.”
As a scholar, Cross monitors messaging and campaigning in Louisiana. Democrats are arguing this fiscal debacle was Gov. Bobby Jindal’s fault with the acquiescence of a GOP-led Legislature. And the narrative of some Republicans is that, true, government is smaller and social ideals are upheld, but fiscally, incumbent legislators “aided and abetted Bobby Jindal’s ambitions and took us down a road we shouldn’t have gone,” Cross said.
Sen. Robert Adley, the Benton Republican who was one architect of the budget solution, says it’ll be up to the legislators to explain on the campaign trail how a huge deficit threatened to cripple colleges and starve health care, but they stepped up and did what needed doing. But they did it, partially, with tax break rollbacks that the business community calls “tax increases.”
“Sure, they’ll try to spin it as taxes, and it’s the candidates’ job to spin it correctly,” Adley said the day before the end of his last session after nearly three decades in the Legislature.
“I love Robert,” said Roy Fletcher, “but you’re going to have to go way out to make that point, you really are.”
Dubbing your opponent a “tax and spender” fits on mailers and in radio ads a lot easier than detailed justifications about political courage for the greater good, said Fletcher, a veteran Republican campaign strategist who has handled dozens of legislative campaigns, including some of Adley’s.
Even if the incumbent is successful, Fletcher said the opposition’s narrative then becomes: “You raised the taxes because they were necessary. But they were only necessary because you made it necessary. Your bungling created this problem. … That’s the campaign you run against them.”
Additionally, incumbent legislators are running out of districts — drawn by them — that are demographically and philosophically homogenous, so making nuanced arguments about practical governing decisions becomes all the more difficult, Fletcher said.
“The road they need leads back to the center, but for a lot of these guys and gals, being in the center is deadly in some of these districts,” Fletcher said. “All that adds up to a very, very bad picture” for incumbents seeking re-election.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politics blog.