Was it ineptitude or political cunning by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards that blew up the recently concluded legislative special session?
The meeting, which Edwards suggested he would call only if he deemed likely to result in higher taxes, accomplished none of that. After it ended two days early, he raced to the microphone to castigate Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras for not rounding up as many dollars and votes as he said he would.
That was like blaming the victim for the crime, for House Democrats, whether Edwards made any genuine attempt to stop them, repeatedly goaded Republicans into offering up concessions, then stiffed them. Or, as Republican state Rep. Lance Harris put it, Democrats kept moving the goal posts on the GOP.
Almost a month prior to the session’s start, Barras sent a note to Edwards announcing House Republicans would raise taxes for the new fiscal year only in conjunction with reducing Medicaid fraud, establishing work or volunteer service requirements for a small portion of Medicaid recipients, and asking clients with sufficient means to pay a tiny share of their Medicaid bills. In addition, the House GOP wanted a reduction of the expenditure limit and increased spending transparency.
Throughout February, Barras made clear that his party would not support changes that increased income taxes but would discuss partial retention of temporary sales taxes that were expiring. Nixing higher levies on income appeared especially appropriate as Louisianans already will suffer an estimated $302 million permanent state income tax hike courtesy of recent changes in federal tax law signed by President Donald Trump.
Knowing all of this, Edwards called the session. But during the session, Democrats repeatedly pressured Republicans to drop their conditions, often successfully. Lawmakers scuttled proposed Medicaid changes, opted to shelve Medicaid work-like requirements for further study, and separated anti-fraud measures from a bill to retain for three years a quarter of the penny temporary sales tax and to eliminate permanently some exceptions to sales taxation, worth $290 million.
Democrats also forced GOP leaders into not only accepting a permanent income tax measure of $79 million that primarily affected higher earners but also tying it to the sales tax bill’s fate. This left Republicans bargaining only to lower the expenditure limit and increase transparency as a condition for any approved tax bills take effect.
But neither of the tax bills passed. Had all Democrats voted for the income tax bill and in favor of the sales tax bill the first time it came up, both would have made it to the Senate. After lawmakers delinked the Medicaid bills from the tax legislation and tied the income tax bill to the sales tax measure, which 90 percent of Democrats had rejected the first time, a second vote still saw 80 percent of Democrats in opposition, which helped to doom it.
Clearly, House Democrats never seriously wanted to keep any expiring general sales tax, even temporarily, and they favored significant permanent tax hikes on middle-class earners and above. That’s because Democratic lawmakers know that, with a Democratic governor for two more years but upcoming elections dampening tax increase sentiment next year, this spring represents their best shot for keeping permanently inflated government.
By subverting the session, they gamble that they can magnify pressure for their desired hikes as the fiscal year’s end approaches, when over a billion tax dollars roll off the books. And Edwards, with all the instruments of his office and influence of his position, either was unwilling or unable to stop them.
Incompetence or Machiavellian mendacity? Regardless of the cause, Edwards’ resulting lack of leadership bodes ill for solving this latest budget crisis.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.