Sometimes, it would be a slur on the mental powers of state legislators to suggest they believe what they say.
Take, for instance, reports that legislators are “confident” all those tax hikes they approved last week were legal. Perhaps, deep in the bowels of the Capitol, lurks the odd tribune from the sticks who doesn’t know better, but most of them must privately acknowledge they are talking tosh.
Copies of the state constitution, after all, are easy to come by in Baton Rouge, and here is what it says in relevant part.
“The levy of a new tax, an increase in an existing tax, or a repeal of an existing tax exemption shall require the enactment of a law by two-thirds of the elected members of each house of the Legislature.”
But when the House voted to scrap various tax credits and exemptions worth more than $600 million, a simple majority was deemed sufficient. State Treasurer John Kennedy is among those who declare those votes would never survive a court challenge.
Kennedy is not only a veteran fiscal pro but has taught constitutional law at LSU for 10 years. No specialist knowledge is required to see that legislators have flouted the law, however. An ability to read the above will suffice.
Legislators nevertheless insist a majority vote was enough, citing an opinion released by then-Attorney General Richard Ieyoub in 1993. Even Baton Rouge seldom comes up with such a feeble and disingenuous pretext as this. An attorney general’s opinion cannot invalidate a constitutional provision anyway, but this one makes no attempt to do so. Have legislators even read it? They claim it supports their position, when, in truth, it absolutely destroys it.
It would be an exaggeration to say the opinion is written in plain English — no lawyer would be guilty of that — but that guy in the basement would only need a few minutes to grasp it. What it says is that the legislature may, by majority vote, suspend a tax exemption, but only until “the 60th day after adjournment of the next session.”
“Suspension,” the opinion notes, “is a separate and distinct measure from the repeal of a law,” the one being temporary and the other permanent. What we have here are repeals, requiring a two-thirds vote. The opinion thus confirms that last week’s bills should not have passed muster.
That is blindingly obvious to Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack, whose members may be relied on to maintain that tax hikes, being bad for them, are also bad for Louisiana. They could file suit and knock this bunch out of the park.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they will, for the upshot would be chaos, and perhaps a sense of civic responsibility will restrain them. Even with the revenues from these tax increases, Louisiana would still be $1 billion in the hole. Besides, the budget will need to be approved by Gov. Grover Norquist, who refuses to countenance any net tax increase.
No, you don’t remember seeing Norquist on the ballot, but his Americans for Tax Reform lobbying organization in Washington, D.C., owns Bobby Jindal’s soul. Jindal signed the pledge and made it plain he will veto any budget the Legislature passes if it doesn’t fit the gospel according to Norquist.
Jindal evidently sees no contradiction in portraying himself as just the bold leader we need in the White House while he cedes control of his government to a far-off bunch of overweening zealots.
Perhaps it is only natural that legislators should pretend that those tax hikes were legal, for the truth is hard to face. We are in one hell of a pickle regardless, and state Senate President John Alario concedes that any budgetary fix we do cobble together will only tide us over until next fiscal year.
Alario says, “We don’t have time now to come up with a long-term solution,” which must be the most outrageous statement of this session.
This crisis did not come out of the blue; Jindal and the Legislature inherited a $1 billion surplus seven years ago, since when we have watched them squander it with a series of reckless and short-sighted budget tricks.
There was plenty of time to come up with a long-term solution. Any legislators who say otherwise cannot possibly believe it.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org