Its session is half over by the clock, but the Louisiana Legislature can be said to have only begun with the reporting of a variety of tax bills from the House Ways and Means Committee this week.
What is unclear is whether the dealmaking over taxes that now will ensue will result in any productive changes before lawmakers have to go home on June 8.
Timing is important, not just because of this long delay in getting legislation over the breakwater of Ways and Means, and not just in this session.
Legislators as a class are people for whom delay and stall are virtues right up with, if not ahead of, faith, hope and charity. Unfortunately, now, they have deadlines, not just June 8 for this session, but the upcoming "fiscal cliff." That is in 2018 when a slew of "temporary" tax increases expire, including a one-penny sales tax increase that is painful to both business and poorer families at the checkout counter.
After delay and stall, but before faith in State Capitol dogma, is re-election. Surprisingly, a large number of legislators are term-limited in the House, but they seem if anything less courageous that their predecessors of a few decades ago. Those lawmakers might have been more arrogant in their safe seats, to which most were re-elected with regularity, but they also had a sense of timing that included doing painful things in a non-election-year session like 2017, before the election year of 2019 starts to loom on the horizon.
Many members of today's House can't seek re-election to a fourth consecutive House term, but they are looking for their next act — either running for a Senate seat, or judgeships if they are lawyers, or local offices. Those are not safe races, the only kind that legislators like, even if House members usually have a leg-up on others for an open Senate seat. So courage is in short supply, as in voting for reasonable tax reform bills that could be criticized out of context on the future campaign trail.
There are many reasons why lawmaking is harder in the days of term limits. Expertise may be limited; some new lawmakers have fixed ideas that they push without regard for legislative history or their own government inexperience. These waste time, and that is in limited quantities in short legislative sessions.
Finally, there is the new equation of party politics. Louisiana's system was long based on deference to the governor, with the Fourth Floor of the State Capitol showering benefits on long-serving members of either party. Those days are long gone, and party passions — among the people, more than legislators — get in the way of tough votes.
Say what you will about Gov. John Bel Edwards, and the GOP party apparatus has called him every name in the book, he seems very earnestly to want not just higher revenues — about which a reasonable debate can be had — but a stable tax structure that is not constantly in crisis.
He did not help his case by pushing a new business tax that died in Ways and Means, the commercial activity tax, or CAT. Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said — without being critical of the governor — that the untested proposal with so many questions about it slowed down the House earlier in the session.
It is a fair observation, but it doesn't answer the question Edwards poses: If not the CAT, then what?
Partisans in the GOP-led House will be voting against just about everything, because they are timing everything for the next election, including trying to knock off Edwards' plans for a second term in 2019. If rank-and-file members just want to avoid personal risk, they will vote against almost anything, because stall and delay are cardinal virtues.
But come the fall of this year, or the spring of next, when Edwards is certain to call special sessions on these pressing tax deadlines, legislators might be in trouble because of their stalling, because re-election is close and the fiscal cliff is closer.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.