Richard Lipsey pushed back from his lunch at a forum last week, took the audience mic and asked panelist Cameron Henry, who probably is the most influential leader in the Louisiana House, just why fellow Republicans refuse to cut Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards any slack.
“Every single day I get an email from the Republican Party,” Lipsey said, “just totally attacking the governor and his plan. Every time the governor opens his mouth … t hey’re attacking, attacking, attacking and the same with LABI,” referring to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the influential business lobbyist.
Lipsey, whose primary business is selling guns, has contributed about $250,000 over the past decade to Republican candidates. He’s also the chairman of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities, community colleges and vocational schools.
Like a buffet, Edwards laid out an array of spending cuts and tax increases from which legislators can choose.
The goal is to overcome a nearly $800 million lack of money to pay this year’s bills, plus an expected $1.9 billion deficit in next year’s spending plan.
The cutting side includes thousands of layoffs and eliminating dozens of services, like hospice care. The revenue-raising side includes tax increases on a pack of cigarettes and adding a penny to the state sales tax.
As chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Henry will sponsor the bill that translates those choices into law.
In the room next door from the Leaders With Vision luncheon that Lipsey and Henry attended Thursday, a club of Republican women learned “how to influence legislators” for the upcoming battle to balance the state’s finances. Their laughter and singing could be heard through the walls as Woody Jenkins, the head of the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party, gave the activists tips from his 28 years in the Louisiana Legislature.
A few days earlier, at a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge, Jenkins advised state Rep. Valarie Hodges, now a member of Henry’s Appropriation Committee, that if no taxes are raised, Edwards would have no recourse but to cut spending. The Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge was formed several years ago as an alternative to the city’s major business group, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. “Don’t be caught up with ‘cut this, close that.’ That’s the governor’s responsibility to propose a balanced budget,” Jenkins said.
Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican, then asked members of the chamber to individually pressure legislators to support spending cuts over tax increases.
“We don’t need concessions,” Hodges said, holding up a copy of Edwards’ list of possible revenue-raising measures. “We won.”
Henry says it’s his job to listen, but he doesn’t have to do what anyone says.
The former aide to U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Henry was penalized by some Louisiana House members for being Republican David Vitter’s putative choice for House speaker, had the senior U.S. senator beaten Edwards in November. Henry has since drawn a lot of praise for withdrawing after the first ballot and throwing his support to Republican Taylor Barras, the eventual winner in the speaker’s race.
Henry acknowledged he advised Barras on whom to appoint to leadership positions but insisted the choices were the speaker’s alone.
Still, Henry’s 24-member Appropriations Committee has six Democrats . Seven of the members just joined the House, at least four of whom won election last fall on a ‘no new taxes, no way, no how’ platform.
Speaker Barras’ partisan tilt to committee leadership and assignments led state Rep. Gene Reynolds, the leader of the House Democratic minority, to quip that anything coming out the Appropriations Committee will be no more than a rubber stamp of GOP talking points.
Henry said his priority is to get a handle on the problem before deciding if revenue raising — he’s reluctant to say “raising taxes” — is necessary.
“How much money do we have? How much money do we need? And how much money can we cut? Until we get those three answers, I don’t think we can speculate,” Henry said. He did, however, rule out the idea for a 1-cent sales tax increase.
Former Gov. Bobby Jindal famously required lawmakers to “stay in the swim lanes,” dictating how and what budget balancing methods were allowed. Edwards told legislators to look at everything — no restrictions.
“And just by saying that, it lets members know that we have a chance of solving some of these problems,” Henry said, adding that on his watch, every idea will be heard. “If you don’t want to be in the room, if you’ve already made up your mind and your district is OK with that, so be it.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@the advocate.com and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.