The renewal of 4 cents of the state’s cigarette tax is putting Republicans at the State Capitol in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to embarrass the governor on an issue with national implications.
Gov. Bobby Jindal characterized the renewal as a tax increase at the start of the session and threatened to veto the measure if the Legislature passed it. The Legislature did.
Now, Jindal is determined not to add his name to the short list of modern Louisiana governors whose vetoes have been overturned by the Legislature.
Through telephone calls and private meetings, the governor is fighting to change the direction of the bipartisan tide that swept the proposal to his desk.
House Bill 591’s sponsor, state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, originally pitched the proposal as a way to generate money for health care during a budget crisis. Now, he said, politics is eclipsing the pennies that smokers pay in taxes.
“This is not about the 4 cents anymore. It’s about the will of the House and the Senate,” Ritchie said.
HB591, which authorizes the renewal, is before the governor, awaiting his veto stamp.
Jindal said he expects to issue that veto early this week. He said he is confident that legislators will back him in lowering the state tax on cigarettes.
“Look, I’m happy with where we are based on our conversations with legislators. Obviously, we’ve been telling folks that we’re going to veto this and we’ve been asking folks to support the administration,” Jindal said Friday. It would take 70 votes in the House and 26 votes in the Senate to override the veto.
Jindal is asking Republicans to stand with him and not overturn his veto. Working against Jindal is Ritchie, who is telling legislators that it would be foolish to eliminate a $12 million annual revenue stream in tough economic times.
In Ritchie’s favor are the 70 legislators in the House and the 29 in the Senate who backed the renewal. However, Jindal seems successful in peeling away Republicans. History also seems to be on the governor’s side.
Legislators have reversed gubernatorial vetoes twice since the 1974 Louisiana Constitution became the state’s governing document.
One override involved abortion. The other limited the state attorney general’s power.
Gov. Buddy Roemer has the distinction of being the first governor in modern Louisiana history to have a veto overturned by the Legislature. Lawmakers sent Roemer legislation in 1991 that outlawed abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
Roemer vetoed the bill. The House voted 76-25 and the Senate 29-9 to override the veto, leaving in place legislation that called for prison terms and steep fines for doctors who performed the illegal abortions. One of the proposal’s sponsors vowed to at least temporarily remove the rape and incest exceptions.
“It’s going to be expensive to litigate, impossible to implement, (it’s) totally unfair to women who have been brutalized and raped. It, in fact, dishonors women and doctors,” Roemer said at the time.
A federal judge ruled the anti-abortion law unconstitutional.
Two years later, it was Edwin Edwards’ turn to be overridden on a veto.
Edwards disassociated himself from the action, saying legislators really were angry with state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub when they voted to keep in place budget cuts to Ieyoub’s office.
“I don’t think it brought down the wrath of the Legislature on me,” Edwards said in June 1993.
Nearly 20 years later, many legislators are hesitant to add their names to Louisiana history books by defying the governor on an issue that is drawing the attention of Citizens Against Government Waste.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization is supporting the governor’s planned veto. The group questions whether raising such taxes actually results in meeting the revenue projections.
Andrew Muhl, government relations manager for the American Cancer Society in Louisiana, said the renewal is being mischaracterized as a tax increase.
“A veto actually lowers the price of cigarettes ... This is clearly a choice between political self-interests or doing what’s right for the people of our state,” Muhl said.
Republican legislators weighing whether to vote in favor of a veto override said they are uncertain about opposing the governor, regardless of whether they support the renewal.
Republican state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, of West Monroe, stood on the State Capitol steps with Ritchie earlier this summer to openly support the cigarette tax renewal.
After a phone call from the governor last week, he said he is praying on the issue. “I’m hesitant to override. That’s a big deal. It’s not about the cigarette tax anymore,” Hoffmann said.
Republican state Rep. Steve Carter, of Baton Rouge, voted for the renewal when it went before the House. Now, he said, he cannot buck the governor. “I’m against cigarettes. I’m against taxes. I’ve got to pick my poison,” he said. Carter said he will back the governor.
State Sen. Buddy Shaw, R-Shreveport, has aligned himself with Jindal on the renewal throughout the process. He said he will not change his allegiance even though he disagrees with the governor on whether the renewal is a tax increase. “I’m simply supporting the governor,” he said.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said he is not uneasy about opposing the governor but understands why other legislators might be.
He said legislators with rural districts to represent cannot afford to lose the governor’s support on construction projects important to their constituents.
“Politics is still a contact sport,” Claitor said.
Ritchie said he is not giving up despite the queasiness of some of his one-time supporters.
“It’s going to be close just like the original passage of the bill. It’s not locked up for the governor,” Ritchie said.