Faced with the potential of yet another frustrating legislative meltdown, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican factions in the Louisiana House met Thursday afternoon in the members’ lounge, just off the chamber floor.
Their aim was to try — one more time — to bridge their differences over how much of an expiring 1-cent sales tax to renew.
Failure to reach agreement could blow up a third consecutive special legislative session this year. If that happened, it would undoubtedly unleash a torrent of ridicule on legislators and imperil programs that most legislators wanted to fund, only days before the new budget year was to begin.
The political dynamics were this: At least 20 Republicans and virtually all 39 Democrats in the House wanted to renew half of the expiring penny sales tax, the position favored by Gov. John Bel Edwards. The $507 million it would generate would cover priority items facing a shortfall, a list that included the TOPS scholarship program, food stamps for the poor, keeping state prisoners in jail until their terms were up and maintaining funding for district attorneys’ offices.
Conservative Republicans, however, wanted to renew only four-tenths of the penny, partly to force cuts in a government that they believed was spending too much money.
Only a tenth of a penny — the equivalent of a dime in taxes on a $100 purchase — separated the two sides. But weeks of failing to find a solution in an increasingly polarized atmosphere had left nerves frayed.
For about two hours, the two sides tried to find common ground. They couldn’t. At one point, the House Speaker, Taylor Barras, a Republican from New Iberia, suggested the two sides settle on a midpoint, renewing 0.45 percent of the penny. Democrats and Republicans alike, both sides unwilling to bend, quickly dismissed his idea.
State Rep. Robert Johnson, of Marksville, the Democratic leader, grew so frustrated he finally stood up and announced, “We’re not budging. We won’t vote for 0.4 [percent].” Johnson called on the three other Democrats, Randal Gaines, of LaPlace, Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport, and Walt Leger III, of New Orleans, to join him in leaving. As they headed out, Johnson challenged the conservative Republican leaders to allow the House to vote on the 0.4 percent proposal, sure that it would lose.
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But the Republican leaders decided to hold a vote only on the half-penny renewal, confident it lacked enough support. They were right. When House Bill 10, got a hearing just before 6 p.m. Thursday, it received only 60 votes, 10 short of the threshold needed for passage.
The conservatives had correctly predicted the outcome on the half-penny, but they didn’t dare bring forth their own, more modest four-tenths proposal. It wouldn’t have mustered more than 40 votes.
In short, neither side had enough support. When the House adjourned for at 8:23 p.m. Thursday, the deadlock seemed solid.
Nearly 20 hours later, the House split the difference, renewing 0.45 percent of the expiring penny by passing an amended HB10. The bipartisan vote was 74 to 24. Led by Barras, a total of 32 Republicans supported it, along with all 39 Democrats and all three independents. The Senate followed suit on Sunday and the Legislature adjourned after 15 weeks of work this year across four legislative sessions. The measure will raise an estimated $463 million annually, enough to end the budget crisis that has gripped Louisiana politics and policymaking for the last three years and offset nearly all of the budget cuts envisioned in the upcoming year.
The deal began to come together late Thursday, buoyed by a push from a group of Republican freshmen and a Democrat often at odds with his party. A key meeting occurred Friday in the governor’s office just before lunch, when Edwards and Barras overcame three years of accumulated mistrust to commit to the proposal. But it still almost fell apart twice that afternoon.
Edwards spoke for those who supported the measure at a news conference after Friday’s vote. “It took a compromise,” he said. “When you compromise, you accept some things you don’t want in exchange for getting some things that you do want.”
To achieve the compromise, Edwards, the Democrats and the moderate Republicans who supported it had to accept some funding cuts. Barras and the other Republicans had to accept higher spending and also the likelihood that fervent anti-tax conservatives from their own party would attack them. (That fear materialized quickly Saturday when state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, lashed out at colleagues on Facebook, calling the vote a “betrayal” by “tax voting liberal Republicans.”)
This account is based on interviews with 14 key House members — including Barras, Johnson and state Rep. Paula Davis, the sponsor of HB10 — as well as two sources close to the governor.
After Thursday’s session ended with the defeat of HB10, many Democrats and Republicans lingered in the House chamber. Everyone was frustrated. But over the next hour, a proposal began to percolate, the one suggested by Barras the day before.
“0.4 [percent] won’t work,” Davis, a Republican from Baton Rouge, told state Rep. Bubba Chaney, a Republican from Rayville. “0.5 [percent] won’t work. Why don’t we meet in the middle?” Chaney agreed, and the two discussed it with other colleagues who hadn’t gone home yet.
As HB10’s sponsor, Davis was a key player. A 44-year-old commercial real estate broker, she was a surprise choice to handle the measure because she had voted against the two sales tax bills during the last special session three weeks earlier. But Davis had told Barras that she was willing to sponsor a 0.4 percent renewal during the latest special session because she believed the Legislature absolutely had to find a way to end the budget crisis. Davis is a freshman, but she had worked as a lobbyist and as a legislative liaison for the Insurance Department.
At one point Thursday night, Davis was discussing the potential compromise with state Rep. Major Thibaut. She said she was hungry, and he agreed to accompany her to McDonald’s. On the way, Thibaut said they ought to present the compromise to Edwards at 8:30 the next morning. Thibaut, a 41-year-old financial planner, is a Democrat from New Roads who has often voted with Republicans on tax and budget matters.
Thibaut broached the idea with a text to the governor that night. “I can meet with you now or at 8:30,” Edwards replied at 10:07 p.m.
Davis and Thibaut brought along three other freshmen Republicans to the Friday morning meeting: state Rep. Jerome Zeringue, of Houma, state Rep. Stephen Dwight, of Lake Charles and state Rep. Jack McFarland, of Jonesboro. All three had voted against the half-penny renewal the day before. During the meeting, Edwards wouldn’t commit to the compromise, but he didn’t reject it either. He said the group would have to win the support of Barras and a healthy number of Republicans for it to have any chance.
The four Republicans immediately went to the speaker’s office. Like Edwards, Barras wouldn’t commit, but he told the legislators to see if they could drum up enough support among fellow Republicans. He handed them copies of the HB10 vote on the 0.5 percent renewal and recommended that they focus on 13 or 14 specific Republicans who had voted no. He said he would gauge the possible support of three or four of them directly.
Minutes later, at 10:27 a.m., Barras gaveled in Friday’s session and then immediately told House members they would be at ease. He didn’t say it publicly, but he wanted to continue working on the possible compromise.
At 11 a.m., Barras, Davis, the other freshmen Republicans, Thibaut and Democratic leaders met with Edwards in his fourth-floor office. Davis and Thibaut explained why they thought the House could pass the proposal. The 0.45 percent renewal would generate $43 million more than the 0.4 percent renewal. After some back and forth, Edwards said, “Mr. Speaker, I need to know whether this is something you’re going to vote for.”
Barras, 61, had been a compromise choice to be elected speaker by the Republican majority when the latest legislative term began in January 2016, after state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who is more conservative, couldn’t win enough votes. Never showy — and liked by everyone, but cautious to, perhaps, a fault — Barras had led the House with a light hand that won praise from conservative Republicans. But he had endured withering criticism from Edwards and other Democrats as well as moderate Republicans for not moving more decisively to land a budget deal in previous sessions.
Taylor Barras needs a win.
Responding to Edwards, Barras outlined a series of conditions he would need to support the 0.45 percent renewal: agreement on how the state would spend the additional $43 million the extra 0.05 percent tax would generate; a commitment of support by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego; solid evidence that the measure could generate 70 votes; and a commitment from everyone in the room they would not go on social media to disclose the potential deal they were discussing.
During the discussion, Edwards asked Barras a second and then a third time whether he would support the proposal. “If these things happened, I could take it to a vote and vote for 0.45 [percent],” Barras finally replied. Edwards then offered his support for the proposal as well.
Both Edwards and Barras had a lot at stake. Both men wanted a win on the tax and budget issue at long last, and both had heard repeatedly from leading businessmen that the state needed to stabilize its finances once and for all to encourage investment. The 0.45 percent renewal, if it passed, would remain on the books for seven years, finally ending the tax and budget political wars for the foreseeable future.
At 1:15 p.m. Friday, the Democratic caucus met in the Ellender Room in the State Capitol basement. Edwards attended and explained why Democrats should support the measure. After Edwards left, Rep. Jenkins, the caucus vice chair, asked those who hadn’t yet come on board to stay behind. This group included state Rep. Cedric Glover, of Shreveport, state Rep. Marcus Hunter, of Monroe, state Rep. John Bagneris, of New Orleans, and state Rep. Edmond Jordan, of Baton Rouge. All African-Americans, they were concerned about the impact of the regressive sales tax on their poor constituents and a series of budget cuts stretching back to the Jindal administration.
For 15 or 20 minutes, the legislators discussed their concerns with Jenkins, Rep. Johnson, Rep. Gaines and Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin. Jones grew frustrated that the group wouldn’t commit and finally blurted out, “If we don’t pass this today, we will not get another chance to fix the damage left by Bobby Jindal and overcome what we’ve suffered for generations in this state.” He walked out.
Still, the Democrats were making headway. The political calculation was that to get to 70, the Democrats had to muster 35 votes, the Republicans 32 and the independents three.
In the caucus meeting, Democrats had agreed they wanted to attach an amendment by Leger to the budget bill to authorize the additional $463 million in spending generated by HB10. Leger’s amendment would provide funding for the priority items still facing a shortfall if tax revenues were higher than expected.
Leger had gone upstairs to brief Henry, who would present the budget bill as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Henry had just learned about the amendment and objected to it. “You’ll blow the whole thing up!” he yelled.
As Leger attempted to explain why Democrats wanted it, Barras and other Republicans crowded around to express their displeasure. “It wasn’t part of the deal,” several said to him. With Republican votes melting away, the accord was on the verge of collapsing.
Jones found Leger in the hallway outside the speaker’s office. By then, Leger had heard enough from Republicans.
“I don’t need to run it,” Leger told Jones. “I’ll pull it. I’ll pull it.”
Leger spread the word among Republicans and Democrats. Barras and others made sure the 32 previously committed Republicans would still support the bill. Others made final pitches to recalcitrant Democrats.
State Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, searched out Hunter. “This is the most we’ll get,” Magee said. “Republicans won’t vote for it again. This is our last shot.”
At about 2:40 p.m. Friday, Thibaut went up to the speaker’s rostrum with a tick sheet in his hand. It stood at exactly 70 votes, the bare minimum.
“We’ve got to take the vote now,” Thibaut told Barras. “It’s now or never.”
Just then, Jenkins and state Rep. Lance Harris, the leader of the Republican caucus, also came to Barras with their tick sheets. They, too, had exactly 70 votes.
After years of special sessions and temporary budget patches, the Louisiana Legislature appears to be on track to shore up the state's finance…
The news elated Barras. But he asked them to confirm their numbers with each other. The three men found that their vote totals matched identically.
“It’s razor-thin,” Harris advised him. Harris would vote no, but with the Republican caucus nearly split down the middle, he was not trying to block the accord.
Davis brought up HB10. First, she had to offer an amendment because the current version of the bill still envisioned a half-penny renewal. No one objected to tweaking the rate to 0.45 percent.
“Members, I ask for your favorable passage,” she said.
But Barras interrupted her. “I think we have another amendment, Mr. Clerk,” he said. The House Clerk, Alfred Speer, spoke next: “Mr. Crews, your amendment.”
[ Click here to see a video of the exchange ]
Dumbfounded, Davis removed her glasses and looked around in confusion. Neither she nor practically anyone else knew that state Rep. Raymond Crews, a conservative Republican from Shreveport, planned to offer an amendment. Davis immediately flashed back to the end of the last special session, when Seabaugh went to the podium in literally the final minute to prevent the possible passage of a sales-tax bill.
Crews was in a side room in the front of the chamber working with staffers to revise the amendment after Speer had told him two minutes earlier that it needed to be reworded for technical reasons. But hearing Speer call his name, Crews left the room and strode toward the podium, with the amendment in hand. Davis intercepted him. “What is this?” she asked sharply.
“I have an amendment,” he said.
“What does the amendment do?”
“It moves the effective date [of the tax renewal] from July 1 to August 1,” Crews replied. “To let taxpayers know we are increasing their taxes.”
Davis shook her head. “No, you’re not going to do this,” she said. “You’re not going to put this amendment on my bill.”
State Rep. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, sprang from his seat to assist Davis. “Sandbagging does not meet your standards as a gentleman,” Hensgens told Crews. “You need to pull your amendment.”
Crews smiled nervously.
State Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, also rushed to join the group.
“You’re going to kill the whole deal,” Armes said in his country drawl, leaning over the press table toward Crews. “It will die.”
Crews turned toward Barras and waved his right hand.
“The gentleman withdraws the amendment,” Barras announced. Applause erupted on the House floor.
Barras asked the clerk to open the voting machines. He voted yes immediately, to make sure everyone saw his name light up in green on the voting board.
The speaker has a vote counter not visible to members. When Barras looked down, he saw the yes vote hit 72. Per custom, he asked the clerk to close the voting machines. Hunter and Glover voted yes at the last second. “I did the wrong thing for the right reasons,” Glover said later. “We needed to move the ball forward,” Hunter said.
Barras’ voice almost broke when he announced the final result, 74-24. Davis nearly cried in relief. She went to celebrate with a dinner that night at Beausoleil restaurant, near her home in Baton Rouge. As she and her husband got up to leave, diners at two tables applauded.
“Thank you for getting this done,” one told her.
Legislators had ended two years of partisan gridlock over taxes, and Barras had played a decisive role. In doing so, he broke for perhaps the first time on a budget or tax bill with both Harris and Henry, his chief lieutenants.
Barras received a stream of congratulatory handshakes and texts as he made his way to his office after the vote.
Budget spreadsheets, copies of past votes and phone messages covered his desk, which belonged to Huey Long when he was governor. Barras sat down and reflected. “It’s not perfect,” he thought. “But it’s finally a resolution.”