Joel Robideaux faced a quandary.
A Republican state representative from Lafayette, Robideaux faced a choice during the just-concluded legislative session that, in simplistic terms, could lead him to be labeled as a tax-and-spend politician or as the savior of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The label mattered because Robideaux is running for Lafayette city-parish president.
The choice arose because Robideaux chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. As a result, it would naturally fall to him to shepherd proposed measures through the full House that would mean higher taxes for businesses and smokers.
The higher tax revenue was needed, nearly everyone in the Capitol agreed, to prevent deep cuts to UL-Lafayette, South Louisiana Community College, University Hospital and Clinics, and other public programs and institutions throughout the state.
But pushing those measures through the House would open Robideaux to attacks that he’s a taxer and potentially imperil his campaign to be city-parish president.
Robideaux clearly revealed his decision on May 7 when he stood before his 104 colleagues in the House and told them why they should vote for a series of measures that would scale back tax breaks given to businesses — tax breaks that Robideaux had supported in previous years.
“When higher ed is faced with the cuts they’re faced with, when the health care community is faced with what it’s faced with, I then have to reflect and say I was part of the reason these incentives exist,” Robideaux said. “I can stand here and try to protect them and say they were right and there’s no reason to tinker with them at all, or we can be honest and say we need to look at them again.”
The House followed Robideaux’s lead and voted for 11 measures that day that would mean a total of about $615 million in higher taxes on businesses and smokers.
Robideaux explained his thinking in an interview later.
“I feel like it was important to stand up for higher education, and whatever the political consequences of that are, I’m comfortable leaving that up to voters,” he said.
A 12-year veteran of the House who cannot seek re-election there because of term limits, Robideaux clearly understood the potential consequences.
“I know that negative campaigning is part of the process, but I have to do what I think is right,” he said. “I can only make sure that people understand the situation higher education faced and why I made the decisions I made.”
Robideaux made one other key decision during the 2015 legislative session. He distanced himself from Gov. Bobby Jindal when he took the lead in opposing a much-derided tax plan sought by the governor that would create the SAVE plan for higher education institutions.
The plan imposes a fee on students that they don’t actually have to pay, and it does not raise any more money for the colleges and universities. It does allow Jindal to claim that he didn’t support a net increase in taxes because the tax credits created to offset the student fee also balance out the tax increases.
The plan, Robideaux wrote in a June 8 letter, would create “fictitious offsets that will almost certainly lead to a disastrous future of runaway taxation.”
The Legislature reluctantly approved the SAVE plan on the final day of the legislative session. Robideaux voted against it.
“His job performance this year has been better than in past years,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, the Democratic nominee for governor. “He’s not been going along with the ill-conceived initiatives of Bobby Jindal this year.”
Until this year, Robideaux had generally supported Jindal, except in 2013 when he refused to have the Ways and Means Committee hear the governor’s bill to repeal the state income tax and replace it with higher levies on other taxes. Jindal dropped the plan in the face of opposition of Robideaux and scores of other legislators.
Asked about Robideaux’s choices during the legislative session, Stanley said, “Both of us will be looking at each other’s record over time, the job he has done over the past 12 years in Baton Rouge and mine as chief administrative officer in Lafayette over the past 12 years.”
Stanley also drew a contrast between the finances of state government and Lafayette Consolidated Government.
“It is untenable to put higher education and public health care in the blast zone,” Stanley said. “It is a problem that should have been dealt with in the same manner in which local governments deal with their budgets on a local basis.”
That kind of contrast doesn’t surprise Pearson Cross, a UL-Lafayette political science professor.
“It will be hard for Joel to defend his role,” Cross said. “The Legislature is not well liked. They get blamed almost equally with Jindal.”
Robideaux, a 52-year-old certified public accountant, has held leadership posts during his legislative tenure, reflecting the respect and trust he enjoys among his legislative colleagues as a problem-solver.
Robideaux served as speaker pro tem from 2008-12 during Jindal’s first term and then narrowly lost a race to be speaker for the next four years. Being named Ways and Means chairman was his consolation prize. Ways and Means and Appropriations are the two most important committees.
When this year’s legislative session began, Robideaux and the other legislators had to close a $1.6 billion projected budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Legislative leaders — including Robideaux — concluded that they had to close the gap through a combination of spending cuts and revenue-raisers because spending cuts alone would devastate UL-Lafayette and the other colleges and universities, as well as the public hospitals now under private management.
The tax measures initially had to go through Robideaux’s Ways and Means Committee. They passed there on May 5, setting the stage for the House votes two days later to raise the $615 million in new revenue.
One person who wasn’t satisfied with the events on May 7 was Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state’s most powerful business lobby.
“Today is probably the single largest tax increase day in the history of Louisiana,” Waguespack said afterward, adding that limiting the exemptions and credits is nothing more than a tax increase. “There’s no glossing over that.”
Asked later about Waguespack’s comments, Robideaux said, “We have to wade through the cries of business, wade through the cries of health care, wade through the cries of higher education and come up with a solution that doesn’t shut down any of them. I think we’ve done that.”
Waguespack’s group raises money for political candidates. Asked whether LABI might target Robideaux, Waguespack said, “We haven’t in the past gotten involved in local mayoral races. I don’t anticipate getting involved in that race.”
Waguespack added that he wasn’t blaming Robideaux for the tax measures. “It was a chorus of votes,” he said.
State Rep. Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, got the nod as House speaker over Robideaux in 2011 and then brought him aboard his leadership team.
Asked about Robideaux’s role this year, Kleckley said, “Leaders lead, and that’s what Joel has done as chair of Ways and Means. In all of our meetings, Joel has never brought up that a piece of legislation could jeopardize his political future. It speaks to what kind of leader he would be for Lafayette Parish.”
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog.