Members of the 2017 Legislature forced a chuckle when Gov. John Bel Edwards remarked with a half-smile that it was the state constitution that brought them to town — the joke being that Edwards has previously done so several times for special sessions, and this year's is a regularly scheduled meeting.
So Jack Benny he's not. But Edwards' comment might also be heard as either threat or promise, that if the Legislature doesn't deal with pressing state problems, he'll bring them back again.
He may be required to do so.
Few sessions have begun with more of a gloomy feeling that progress is unlikely on the big issue, a broken budget and tax policy in chaos unusual even in Louisiana.
Party politics, Louisiana style, is not the same as that in Washington, D.C. — a Gomorrah of gridlock that the governor denounced explicitly in his opening speech. But so long as hard-core of anti-tax conservatives in the 105-member House can block 70-vote margins for tax changes, whatever they may be, the options for the governor look bleak, even for the most reform-minded of the proposals from the administration. The Ways and Means Committee, the House channel for tax bills, appears indifferent if not hostile to change.
A good many GOP members of the Legislature are at least generally in the governor's corner. They might not buy every one of his proposals but agree that we can't go on like this, lurching from crisis to crisis.
The president of the Senate, John Alario, R-Westwego, called down the pretensions of ultraconservatives on cutting the budget: "The rhetoric coming from the House is just to cut everything," Alario snorted. "I’d be interested to see that list of cuts."
The governor told editors and reporters of The Advocate after his speech that he's trying to build "a sense of urgency" about fixing the short-term revenue and budget deals that could collapse the state budget structure in 2018.
The following is a partial transcript of Gov. John Bel Edwards' meeting with The Advocate ed…
Unfortunately, that is not a fear, but a goal of "starve the beast" strategies of the far right.
Edwards' array of tax changes is one of his problems. It's complex, requiring multiple bills — and every one scrutinized by lobbyists seeking advantage. A late entry is the "commercial activity tax," still being fiddled with as the session opens.
The process, always difficult to navigate, now has a layer of partisan activity in the House that crusts over initiatives for change.
Is it hopeless? Perhaps, but there are two sides to every political problem. One is the complex tax proposals, the inside game of trading and dealing — the game that Edwards knows, because his only previous official experience was as a two-term House member from Amite.
The outside game in the arena of public opinion is one where Edwards has more advantages than perhaps he realizes.
The 2017 Louisiana Survey was conducted by the LSU Public Policy Lab, and it found that 46 percent of respondents thought the state was on the right track, compared to 40 percent on the wrong track. That's a pretty remarkable result in a state where much of the oil patch is in economic distress.
It would be impolitic of LSU to ask for the approval rating of the governor or Legislature, but the "right track" question is something of a proxy for the governor's approval. Edwards retains a following from his effective leadership during the floods and police shootings last year; his expansion of Medicaid is well-received.
The inside game might not be enough, however effective the governor's grasp of the issues and willingness to engage across party lines in his discussions. What is needed is an outside game, mobilizing public opinion in favor of change.
If he and his supporters can't get agreement by the June end of the regular session, then mobilizing for reform will be even more urgent before a fall special session.
That's not just traveling around the state to meet with legislators, as he did this year, in an inside game at outside venues. Rather, it's coalition-building, including business people who crave a more stable tax system, as well as making the populist case for reform.
Making Louisiana great again? An outside game can bring pressure on insiders, and it may be the only route around the legislative roadblocks ahead.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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