As momentum on Sunday night turned against approving a key GOP demand that could save the special session, the governor’s executive counsel, Matthew Block, pulled so many Democrats to the chamber rail — forbidden by House rules — that a sergeant at arms intervened.
Democrats then flooded off the House floor and surrounded Block in a back corner as he showed them language that would allow Democrats to safely vote for the Republican plan to extend part of the sales tax set to expire on June 30.
He didn’t succeed. Twenty-nine of the House’s 41 Democrats joined 40 Republicans and one independent to vote against House Bill 23, which collected as many “no” votes, 70, as was needed to pass the measure in the 105-seat chamber.
Moments later, the House adjourned for the night and GOP strategist Dan Richey couldn’t contain his exuberance as he entered Memorial Hall. Tasked with ridding the Governor’s Mansion of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2019, the usually taciturn Richey pumped hands with double-fisted handshakes and slapped backs as he congratulated some members of the 20-member House’s “Gang of No” for helping to defeat HB23 and thereby all but end the special session without approving any revenue-raising measures to help balance the state budget.
The collapse of the special session turned on bickering over who got to vote first.
Democrats wouldn’t back legislation that would increase taxes on retail sales unless Republicans agreed to increasing taxes on income. Republican leadership said OK, provided legislation passed to change some spending procedures. It did.
Then came the seminal vote on Sunday night.
Democrats wanted a vote first on House Bill 8 before they would agree to the sales tax measure. HB8 would have limited how much taxpayers could take off their state income taxes if they itemized deductions on their federal returns in excess of the standard deduction. It would have raised about $79 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
But Republican leadership brought up HB23 first. The measure would have extended 25 percent of the penny about to expire and would have removed some exemptions from the state’s about-to-be 4-cent sales tax. It would have raised about $288 million next fiscal year.
The revenues from both measures would have come in well south of the nearly $1 billion that Edwards said is needed to fully fund the popular TOPS college grant, pay prosecutors, provide health care programs and subsidize other state services. (Many Republicans argue that Edwards exaggerated the size of the projected deficit.) But those were the two revenue-raising bills on which they could agree.
As HB23 was being debated Sunday night, Democratic New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger III, sponsor of HB8, read the mood of the chamber and asked to postpone the vote on the sales tax measure until his income tax bill could be voted upon. He predicted the sales tax legislation would fail unless the income tax bill went first.
"There is not a lot of trust in the body right now," Leger said. "I think that's clear."
Republicans refused to reorder the schedule.
The House now has 60 Republicans, about 20 of whom — the Gang of No — have rejected all revenue-raising measures. So, a good many of the 41 Democrats had to cross the aisle to reach the 70 votes needed to pass the sales tax measure.
As state Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, answered questions about his sales tax bill, Block gathered Democrats around him to point out on a copy of the legislation the black and white language that linked the two measures: if the bill that would increase income taxes failed, so would the higher sales tax proposal.
So it didn’t matter if the Republicans reneged on income taxes, Democrats were free to back the sales tax legislation, Block argued.
But it was too late, said Democratic state Rep. Ted James, of Baton Rouge, after the House adjourned. The schedule for votes on the two bills was set from the get-go, and going first with the sales tax bill was but the latest change in the deal Republicans unilaterally had made.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Gene Reynolds, of Minden said in a statement: "Our Republican colleagues displayed little interest in actually passing a package to solve our problems tonight when they refused to take up instruments in a bipartisan manner. Their bad behavior and irresponsibility was rubber-stamped by Republican leadership as usual.”
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, saw it differently, saying in a prepared statement: “In what appeared to be a total disconnect between House Democrats, the House Black Caucus and the Governor, repeated attempts by the House Democrats to block revenue measures deteriorated any chances of reaching a solution.”
What is real is that legislators will have to reconvene in June — at a cost of about $60,000 a day — to try again.
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Matt Houston/LSU Manship School News Service