In the adult world, if you don’t do your work when you’re supposed to, you don’t get to charge overtime to do what you should have done all along.
That’s why Louisiana’s lawmakers should decline their pay for any special sessions needed to address the fiscal fiasco that the just-concluded regular session was intended to resolve.
Special sessions have recently become standard operating procedure, thanks to a Capitol culture that’s a case study in arrested development. This spring's regular session closed in chaos on Thursday, requiring a special session to complete a budget deal. Yet another special session will almost surely be needed to address the fiscal cliff looming next year. Depending on their length, the cost of special sessions can approach a million bucks, according to legislative budget leaders.
The regular session required grown-ups at the table summoned to the common cause of reform. The urgency for change seemed clear enough, given tax and fiscal policies that have left state government with a projected $1.3 billion shortfall in 2018 as so-called “temporary” taxes fall off the books.
Leaders of the House and Senate promised bold structural reforms, ostensibly based on the common-sense recommendations of a nonpartisan task force created to address Louisiana’s regressive and antiquated tax system. Gov. John Bel Edwards muddied the waters by proposing a business activity tax unrelated to the task force recommendations that had no chance of passing. Meanwhile, lawmakers dithered, deliberating divisive side issues like a poorly conceived bill to rename the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. Perhaps the geniuses of the Legislature should agree to re-christen the Capitol as Nero Hall, after the Roman emperor who famously fiddled while Rome burned.
As lawmakers whiled away the session blowing legislative spitballs at each other, sporadic voices of maturity emerged, only to be dismissed by detractors with rhetorical raspberries.
State Reps. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner and Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, proposed some promising tax reforms that went nowhere. State Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, suggested raising the state’s gasoline tax for the first time in decades to help repair Louisiana’s infrastructure, a pox of potholes more cratered than the moon. His colleagues turned a quick thumbs-down, ignoring roads so bad that, to paraphrase Huey Long, even the weather has trouble getting through. Legislators did agree on important criminal justice reforms, embracing a spirit of consensus that, for the rest of the session, was sadly lacking.
Long’s statue stands in front of the Capitol, facing the building, his back to the people. It aptly expresses the insular character of the Capitol’s ruling class, which tends to gaze inward, toward its petty internal politics, rather than outward, toward the interests of the people who elected it.
That’s not the kind of performance that deserves another paycheck. Which is why, as they convene in special sessions to answer the agonizing mess made worse by dickering and delay, legislators should do the job without charging taxpayers an extra dime of compensation.
Who knows? If lawmakers were forced to face the realities of a normal workplace, then something might actually get done.