As the old adage about lawmaking and sausage-making makes clear, the work of a legislature is seldom pretty. But even by the standards of political expedience we’ve come to expect of Louisiana lawmakers, the closing moments of their special session on Wednesday were a maddening meat-grinder of mass confusion, mercenary maneuvering and mediocre leadership.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is full of lawmakers who were elected on the promise they would run state government like a business. If any company conducted its affairs like the legislative clock was managed on Wednesday, it would be bankrupt.
The session’s final hour played out like a drunken game of living room charades, as lawmakers took to the microphone to openly guess about the contents of bills aimed at closing a multimillion-dollar hole in the state budget. One couldn’t help thinking of U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who famously urged her colleagues to pass Obamacare so they could discover what was in it. The Pelosi Principle was in full swing on Wednesday, with so many last-minute revisions-to-revisions-to-revisions of major tax legislation that few lawmakers could pretend to understand in any detail what they were approving.
The chaos lapsed into a theater of the absurd as state Sens. Karen Carter Peterson and J.P. Morrell voiced concerns that a proposed 1-cent increase in the state sales tax might actually raise the tax by 1 ¼ cents, a brouhaha eventually blamed on a discrepancy between a summary of the bill and the bill itself. Lawmakers appeared to approve the 1-cent tax. But given the slapdash tactics of legislators who procrastinated with the people’s business, only to find themselves racing to resolve a budget of billions of dollars affecting every man, woman and child in Louisiana, we may have to wait for days to fathom the particulars of what was passed.
If all of this sounds like the product of a classically dysfunctional family, then the defining quality of troubled relationships — namely, a huge capacity for denial — was a major factor in Wednesday’s legislative meltdown. After eight years under Bobby Jindal, who used any number of gimmicks to paper over problems in the state fisc, his successor, John Bel Edwards, promised a franker appraisal of state finances. It’s a message that Republican lawmakers, especially those in the House, proved reluctant to hear.
This crisis has been brewing for a long time, but when Edwards challenged lawmakers to fill the budget holes with real money — a refreshing contrast with the financial legerdemain of the previous administration — it seems as if the House was flailing about for any options other than raising taxes and then getting tangled in details over the ones members would adopt.
This led to hard feelings as Edwards criticized House Speaker Taylor Barras and his team. Barras, R-New Iberia, was not Edwards’ pick to lead the House.
The legislators’ pace was slow, and their commitment to filling the hole seemed to take second place to casting around for any alternative — as if they had not seen this particular boulder rolling their way for months. The anarchy in the House proved an inauspicious debut for Barras, who had been touted as a unifier. Instead of forming a clear philosophical alternative to Edwards’ plans, Barras and company created the policy equivalent of a food fight. Come Monday, they’ll do it all over again at the State Capitol, as the regular session begins. We hope that lawmakers do better. The good news is that they can hardly do worse.