The Black caucus is withholding support for far-reaching tax measures sought by the legislative leadership to protest House Speaker Clay Schexnayder’s inaction on whether to keep state Rep. Ray Garofalo as chairman of the Education Committee.
The first short-term casualty came on Monday with House Bill 275, which would carry out a complicated tax swap. The bill represents a part of an ambitious effort by Republican legislators to overhaul the state’s tax code in the legislative session that ends June 10. State Rep. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, chose to have the House skip over his measure rather than face a certain defeat.
The Black lawmakers are pushing to remove Garofalo who, after being warned privately not to do so, presented a racially-charged bill on April 27 before the Education Committee that would ban K-12 schools and universities from offering courses that included “divisive concepts,” such as that the state and country are racist or sexist. Lawmakers on the committee did not approve Garofalo’s measure, House Bill 564.
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he has met “too many” times over the past week to discuss concerns about Garofalo – and racially-insensitive comments by other White members – with Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and House Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma, to no avail.
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Now the caucus is leveraging its influence on tax votes, which require at least 70 votes, a two-thirds majority, to win passage.
“All 70-vote bills are where our caucus can show our concern and displeasure,” James said in an interview.
He said members of the Black Caucus are also trying to win support for their own tax bills that would help the poor.
The position of the Black Caucus has put Schexnayder in a tight spot. He is a conservative who has supported efforts to reopen the economy quicker than Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has favored. But he was elected speaker last year by a bipartisan coalition over a more conservative Republican in a chamber with a Republican majority. The entire Democratic caucus voted to deliver Schexnayder the Speaker’s gavel.
As part of his balancing act, Schexnayder must also contend with about 20 far-right Republicans in the 105-member House who vote against all tax measures. So Schexnayder needs the 27 Black members to pass a package of bills that would eliminate a popular tax break that allows individuals to deduct their federal tax payment on their state income tax return. In exchange, they would get lower income tax rates. Groups from across the political spectrum have supported the plan, which tax experts have recommended for years.
State Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, who is handling part of the tax package, declined to discuss the political fight other than to say, “We look forward to moving it.”
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Garofalo, R-Chalmette, who is White, offered HB564 before his committee two weeks ago after at least two Black lobbyists told him the night before that doing so would probably inflame racial tensions.
Nonetheless, Garofalo held a five-hour committee hearing on his bill. During it, he further infuriated Black members when, during one exchange, he said, “You can talk about everything dealing with slavery. The good. The bad. The ugly.”
Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans, replied that “there is no good to slavery, though.”
"You are right,” responded Garofalo. “I didn't mean to imply that and don't believe that."
Garofalo's comments went viral after the Louisiana Democratic Party tweeted a clip of the exchange, drawing incredulous comments from several celebrities.
Garofalo compounded the problem, from the perspective of Black members, when he told the House chamber on Wednesday that his comments had been “taken out of context,” but he did not take them back and said he was addressing the chamber at Schexnayder’s request.
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“The general consensus is that the majority of Democrats and Republicans think that what Ray said (in committee) was misspeaking but his apology did not solve the problem,” said Magee and added, “We’re all open to ways to do this.”
Garofalo didn’t respond to a text on Monday.
Black members of the Education Committee walked out of a hearing last week because they thought Garofalo was being disrespectful to state Rep. Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport, who is Black.
State Rep. Gary Carter, D-Algiers, has been staying away from the committee since Garofalo brought HB564.
“It’s hard for me to attend with him as chair given the importance of the subject,” Carter said.
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Black members also were upset when state Sen. Troy Carter, D-Algiers, presented Senate Bill 61 before the House Committee on Labor last week and faced questions from White lawmakers that they thought were disrespectful. SB61 would ban employers from discriminating against employees with “natural hair styles” worn by Blacks.
“With all the problems we’re having with COVID and re-opening the economy, we have to work together as a team,” said state Rep. Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria.
Riser said he hoped to piece together a coalition to pass the tax swap legislation next Monday.