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Advocate staff photo by DENNY CULBERT. Photo shot on 12/11/08. The partially snow covered statue of Huey P. Long looks towards the state capitol building as snow continued to fall Thursday morning in Baton Rouge.

While Louisiana legislators milled around the State Capitol last week doing nothing more than accusing members of the other party of sidetracking the latest stab at fixing the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise put the blame squarely on Huey Long.

“We're still operating a lot of the vestiges of Huey Long. You look at the other Southern states around us, and they have changed to meet the new environment and have thrived because of it," Scalise told The Advocate of his view of the situation in Baton Rouge.

Pointing the finger at someone who took office 90 years ago seems a little audacious. But get used to it. “It’s Huey’s fault” looks like a catch phrase going into the 2019 elections.

State Sen. Conrad Appel, the Metairie Republican who has taken a side job as conservative philosopher on right-wing blog sites, wrote on Feb. 19, the first day of the special session focused on fixing a nearly $1 billion deficit: “I agree that without doubt our predicament is caused by poverty, but it is a poverty of the spirit resultant from a political establishment at all levels that has mastered the art of operating under a philosophy of government that dates to Huey Long.”

Back in September, Dan Richey, a Baton Rouge political consultant, chronicled the political genealogy from Huey Long to Senate President John Alario for a group of businessmen active in conservative causes. He painted the 2019 elections as historic because the “last vestige” of Huey will go when the 74-year-old Alario has to step down because of term limits.

It’s a compelling, if flawed, storyline.

Upon taking office in May 1928, Long wrested political control from the planter class that had run the state since Reconstruction. He pushed the Legislature to fund construction of roads, bridges, hospitals, and infrastructure that put the unemployed to work during the Depression, opened up trade, and sent children to school, often for the first time. The projects helped usher in an industrial boom still evident in the manufacturing facilities that line the Mississippi River.

But Long’s most lasting legacy is a top-down administrative system, which puts the governor’s hands on an array of levers so powerful that parish and municipal officials are required to come to Baton Rouge on bended knee for funding and permission to do what in another state would be purely a local matter — such as paying prosecutors or deciding from whom to collect property taxes.

This is the flaw in the GOP narrative to hang Democrats with Huey’s legacy. When Alario, R-Westwego, steps down at the end of 2019, 24 of his 47 years in the Legislature will have been served under Republican governors who saw no need to change that power dynamic that Huey put in place nine decades ago.

Still, the narrative could be more prescient than has been articulated.

A deep philosophical difference divides Louisiana Democrats and Republicans. It’s the reason for the difficulty in agreeing on how to repair a fiscal structure that can’t raise enough money to pay for state services.

The Democrats see the responsibility of funding government as being shared in proportion to a person’s ability to pay. Republicans see it more as a number that most everyone should pay.

Hence, Democratic representatives have balked at a sales tax-only solution that the GOP favors. And Republican House members reject Democrats’ plan of increasing income taxes.

Last weekend both sides gave a little bit. That compromise fell apart when Republicans, at the last minute, changed the deal by insisting on keeping 25 percent of a sales tax penny set to expire June 30. The deal had been to keep a half-cent.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who no doubt wishes he could command the obedience Huey mustered, told The Advocate Thursday the switch not only angered Democrats but “it opened up a hole that had to be filled. So then you had some members, particularly among the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus,” who went back to demanding that income tax be put more into play.

State Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, said the change in percentage was to reach the 70 votes necessary for passage. Other Republicans blamed the Black Caucus for resurrecting an income tax plan that had been off the table.

GateHouse Media columnist Rick Holmes wrote in the Nebraska City News Press on Feb. 22 that a display near Huey’s office in the Old State Capitol pointed out that when Long became governor, “Louisiana ranked at the bottom of every measure of social and economic progress.” A U.S. News and World Report survey two weeks ago ranked the state at the bottom in metrics like crime, opportunity, economy, education and government.

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