Jones Listens, Long Talks

Former Gov. Sam Jones of Lake Charles, left, a member of the State Democratic Central Committee, listens speculatively as Gov. Earl K. Long talks to him during the committee session at the State Capitol. Jones and Long are political foes.

Louisiana voters have a long history of electing fix-it governors to handle tough situations, then turning them out after a single term.

Govs. Sam Jones and Bob Kennon weakened government by gubernatorial fiat by strengthening the civil bureaucracy. Then voters returned to the highpoppalowrum and lowpappahighrum of the Long era.

Govs. Dave Treen and Buddy Roemer made fiscal changes that weaned the state off depending primarily on oil revenues before voters returned to the fun of Edwin Edwards.

Despite all that kumbaya talk after the fiscal deal last week, it’s clear that Louisiana Republicans hope to add Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to that list of short-timers.

John N. Kennedy, the U.S. senator and putative GOP gubernatorial candidate next year, tweeted: “Heck I don’t think even good ol’ Abe Lincoln could get reelected if he raised billions in new taxes like Gov. Edwards has done.”

Putting aside that President Lincoln is father of the income tax, yet was reelected, Louisiana legislators of both parties voted overwhelmingly in March 2016 to raise $1 billion in taxes for two years to give them time to repair a fiscal system that annually fails to raise enough money to pay the bills. Roughly two years later, legislators had made no fixes and had suggested no meaningful funding cuts to state services.

Facing a massive deficit when those temporary taxes expired, which they did last night, Edwards had agreed with Republicans not to pursue changes to income tax brackets, but instead push to renew a portion of a penny added to the state sales tax that his Democratic base opposed.

Then the fight shifted to how much of the one-cent to keep. Democrats and most of the Senate demanded half a penny to raise the $506 million needed to fund services. House Republicans wanted less.

After weeks of intransigence, the two sides agreed last Sunday night on keeping for seven years 45 percent of the additional penny, which raised about $496 million.

Legislators cheered and left town.

Shortly before going into the meeting that sealed the deal in the governor’s fourth floor State Capitol office, House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, reflected on what at that moment was a protracted deadlock over a tenth of a cent. At least some of the impasse was based on partisan politics.

“I don’t think it’s 100 percent political, but partisan politics is playing a role,” he said. Because of Louisiana’s complex web of tax exemptions, each of the proposals have different impacts on different interests, all of which need to be talked through, he said. Those talks are among people with fundamentally different opinions about the role of government.

Three days after the deal was passed, Barras told Moon Griffon, the right-wing radio talk show host, that state government would rein in spending only “when we change the person on the 4th floor. I hate to be that blunt but that's the only thing that gets us off of that.”

What really moved the needle was that hardline philosophy was trumped by weariness, said Bernie Pinsonat, the Baton Rouge pollster and political strategist.

“Everybody just wanted to go home,” Pinsonat said, based on what his clients in the Louisiana House told him. “Partisanship gave way to ‘Let’s get out of here.’ But their partisanship is still there.”

Another factor was that failing to compromise would have led House Republicans — who had chanted cut, cut, cut — into owning a budget that would have drastically reduced services, said G. Pearson Cross, who teaches political science at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

The parent writing a thousand-dollar check to cover the college costs that a reduced TOPS appropriation created wouldn’t have been exalting over how House Republicans saved them from paying a half-cent more in sales taxes, he said.

“We’re experiencing in Louisiana what has been the national Republican mantra of less government (while) Democrats want to grow government, tax and spend, which is an unfair criticism,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who as a child went with his Mom door to door in Baton Rouge distributing “Barry Goldwater for President” literature. “It’s becoming more and more difficult, I think, for someone to be willing to say: ‘I’m not going to look at the world in absolutes’.”

What would have been different if fellow Republican David Vitter was governor?

“The numbers would have been the same. The problems would have been the same. I don’t know that solutions would have been dramatically different,” Dardenne said. “A Republican governor and a Republican legislature would have come in and would have done the kind of things that are now being deemed unacceptable.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.