An ill omen was seen on the House floor last week when Gov. John Bel Edwards, during his session-opening speech, had to gently encourage lawmakers to applaud when he announced that the state would be embarking on a mission of fiscal reform this spring.
The landscape developed even rougher edges when, not long after, Democratic players in the House reported to Edwards that he was losing support among members of his own party for a couple of his key proposals. In short, the governor’s most dependable votes in the Legislature weren’t materializing as had been hoped.
As for where the opposition came from, there’s a group of Democratic lawmakers who are getting cold feet after 15 and a half months of backing the governor and receiving nothing for it — particularly in the form of capital outlay money and projects. There’s not much Edwards can do about that; he doesn’t have the kind of cash to throw around for pet projects that his predecessors did and his administration is directing money into statewide projects at the cost of local initiatives.
It probably didn’t help that the first week of the session came and went without a bill being introduced for the governor’s centerpiece legislation, which is a corporate sales tax on gross receipts rather than profits. But that delay did give Edwards and his supporters the opportunity to accuse naysayers of acting too hastily. They had not, after all, seen an actual bill worth opposing.
Nonetheless, with the possibility of this being a make-or-break session for the governor politically, it was not a great start. Even if the most disagreeable Democrats do eventually come around, the effort and energy spent on reversing their course will not be recouped by the administration.
But the bigger concern for the administration is not members of the House Democratic Caucus. The real worries reside on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, which could inflict more damage on Edwards this year than any other legislative group or faction.
When asked which plan or approach he favors, Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson, R-New Orleans, has been telling colleagues that he prefers his own plan, which includes just one bill — his HB 456 — to call a limited constitutional convention. Coupled with the new conservative votes added to the committee recently, via the appointments of Reps. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, and Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, the Ways and Means Committee looks like a one-stop shop of horrors for the Fourth Floor.
While there are legitimate concerns by Edwards supporters about which tax bills the committee will actually move, there are also questions about how those measures will be moved. As of now no final decisions have been made by Abramson. So we could see some actual votes taken or the committee, as it has done over the past year, might use some procedural techniques to get tax bills to the House floor without action, or votes taken.
When it comes to the big picture, the “Who’s Gonna Bend First Game” has definitely started. Republican leaders in the House have rejected the notion that there’s a $440 million shortfall for the next fiscal year. That’s the number the governor has said he needs to fully fund the budget that takes effect on July 1.
The House GOP instead views the number as a spending “wish list” for departments and agencies. That’s why the Republican leadership in the lower chamber intends to use a standstill budget (meaning the spending totals as they stand today), plus all of the constitutional funding requirements, as a starting point for negotiations.
Conservatives are now waiting to see what the governor is willing to not fund, with fingers crossed that everyone can land somewhere between standstill and $440 million. So far there are no lines drawn in the proverbial sands, but there are concerns on both sides that ultimatums could arrive at any moment.
As it sometimes goes in politics, the winner may be the side that has the best messaging, not ideas. Will voters buy the governor’s argument that Republicans and business interests rejected his push to cut taxes for Mom and Pop and that they’re unwilling to play well with others — namely his administration? Or will voters embrace the Republican thinking on this, that Edwards has a spending problem and not a budget problem?
Like it or not, politics and governing have fully collided at the State Capitol. The only thing we can do now is wait for the possibility of a BIG BANG! It promises to be messy and, if it does all go up in smoke, will only add to the disfunction of this term in state government.