It's been more than two years since the Louisiana House issued a declaration of independence.
Boasting a Republican majority but facing a new Democratic governor, the lower chamber rebelled against its own unofficial but longstanding tradition of letting the head of the executive branch dictate who should lead a legislative chamber. Rather than elect John Bel Edwards' well-regarded Democratic pick, state Rep. Walt Leger III of New Orleans, Republicans in the House chose one of their own, Taylor Barras of New Iberia.
It was an attention-getting accomplishment, particularly after the GOP's more ideologically inclined candidate, Cameron Henry of Metairie, struggled to gain support among some moderate Republicans. Barras, an amiable former Democrat, was a last-minute compromise, but when he put Henry in charge of the Appropriations Committee and stacked it and other key panels with harder-core conservatives, the deed was done. The House had handed Edwards a painful defeat on the very day of his inauguration, and announced itself as the loyal opposition.
We're still waiting for a second accomplishment.
Instead, lawmakers gathered in Baton Rouge for the seventh time since that dramatic January, 2016 day are once again grappling with the same overarching challenges they faced back then: how to dig the state out of a deep budget hole and make the overall tax structure more sensible and reliable. Because most legislation that would raise revenue must originate in the House, all eyes are once again aimed there.
This is the chance the chamber's leaders demanded. They said they wanted to not just follow the lead of the governor, but to govern. The question hanging over this special session is whether they're finally prepared to do it.
Recent history isn't promising. The 2016 regular session produced a short-term fix that nobody much liked, mainly a temporary one-cent increase in the state sales tax. The tax came with an expiration date at the end of this fiscal year, or June 30, which was supposed to give lawmakers time to come up with something better. They had the chance during last year's fiscal session, but didn't.
And despite months of conversations between Edwards, Barras and others leading up to the latest special session that began Monday, it's still unclear whether the speaker can marshal enough votes to make up for the $1 billion or so that will drop off the books this summer, or identify program cuts members are willing to impose on the public instead. Lawmakers cannot raise revenue during the upcoming regular session, so if they don't fix things now, they'll have return for an 11th-hour special session in June.
No question, Barras' position is challenging. Revenue-raising measures need 70 of 105 votes, and there are only 61 Republicans in the House. Plus, some of those members will simply never support a tax, so Barras will need even more Democratic support for any measure to pass. And what appears to be one favored Republican approach, keeping at least some part of the temporary sales tax, is unpopular with Democrats because sales taxes generally hit the poor hardest.
About the only thing the Republicans seem to agree on is that the Legislature should pass a handful of separate proposals that they insist will help curb spending the long run. It's not at all clear how much money such proposed reforms would save, and none of the ideas address the immediate crisis. The proposals include work requirements and co-pays for Medicaid recipients and the adoption of a web site that details state spending modeled on one in Ohio.
Some people on the GOP side have pointed the finger back at Edwards, noting that he could have headed off a partisan fight in 2016 by backing a friendly Republican for speaker. They also argue that the governor shouldn't have proposed the much-maligned commercial activity tax last year, a non-starter of an idea that became a major distraction. That's fair.
Still, in choosing their own leadership, members of the House basically said they were ready to do things their way. Other than simply saying no, the Republicans have left us waiting to see what they have in mind.