Louisiana House committee advances 31 tax bills without debate; here are next steps _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses a Joint Sesson at the start of a Special Legislative Session on Sunday, Feb. 14..

According to a new poll, Gov. John Bel Edwards starts out his new term with the lowest approval rating since Edwin Edwards returned to office 24 years ago, a victory the former governor owed almost entirely to the identity of his opponent, ex-Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.

For the current Gov. Edwards, this is actually pretty good news. A month into a tenure that’s so far defined by a potentially crippling budget shortfall, 42 percent of the 500 likely voters surveyed recently by Southern Media & Opinion Research gave his job performance a thumbs-up. But only 23 percent said he’s doing a bad job, and 35 percent said they’d yet to form an opinion.

So as the Legislature grapples with the historic budget crisis he inherited from his predecessor, it’s worth remembering that more than three-quarters of the people polled are at least willing to give Edwards a chance — despite the fact that he’s a Democrat leading a Republican state and that he’s facing a House in which leaders of the opposing party are flexing their partisan muscles.

To say that Edwards didn’t get the typical honeymoon is an understatement. Revenue estimates have been caught in a downward spiral. His effort to install a Democratic House Speaker backfired and wound up concentrating power in the hands of those who are most skeptical of his approach.

Besides, Edwards is seeking higher taxes, and you don’t need a poll to tell you that nobody likes that.

This particular one found that just 24 percent of the likely voters interviewed think taxes should go to plug this fiscal year’s immediate shortfall, while 72 percent said they don’t. Not surprisingly, the people polled found raising the so-called “sin taxes” — which, unlike sales and income tax, don’t hit everyone and are attached to discretionary purchases — the most palatable revenue-raising option. A majority favored raising taxes on tobacco and alcohol, while most opposed higher sales and income taxes. Half the respondents said they were OK with raising corporate income taxes. The poll was taken Feb. 2-4, before the most recent projections came out and before Edwards went on television to make his case to the public.

The poll also measured low levels of trust in state government and widespread belief that state government isn’t frugal. Most people questioned said they’d rather see spending cuts than tax increases. Again, no surprise here.

But that doesn’t mean people won’t forgive the governor for raising these taxes, particularly if doing so heads off the sort of worst-case scenario that everyone in the Legislature is talking about. It doesn’t mean people will cringe, or even really notice, every time they pay a penny more in sales tax. It doesn’t mean they’d prefer for the public-private safety net hospitals to shut down, or for state universities to stop paying their faculties and staffs, or for kids with severe disabilities to lose government aid their families rely upon. It doesn’t mean they’d be OK with a wholesale downsizing of the TOPS scholarships for next year.

And it doesn’t mean they’re willing to give up the $1 billion in state spending on areas other than health care and higher ed that enjoy so-called statutory dedications — in layman’s terms, an untouchable stream of revenue. These dedications fund popular and important government functions, too.

It also doesn’t mean they expect structural changes in areas such as higher education to happen in an emergency three-week special session.

The poll numbers may not be what a new governor would like to see, but nor should they give comfort to those who are trying to paint him as a knee-jerk tax-and spender. There’s no indication that most voters blame Edwards for problems in state government, particularly since prior surveys have documented deep disappointment in former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s stewardship.

His critics have some good points to make, particularly about longer-term restructuring. But they destroy their own credibility when they try to sell the public on the idea there are easy short-term answers.

The poll suggests voters don’t necessarily buy that — that they’re still reserving judgment. Given the facts on the ground and the posture of his harshest critics, that’s about the best anyone in Edwards’ shoes could hope for.

Stephanie Grace’s email address is sgrace@theadvocate.com.