Special session to solve state revenue fails

By Sarah Gamard, Matt Houston and Ashley Wolf, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — In a stunning display of mistrust between Republicans and Democrats, the House failed Sunday to agree on any revenue-raising measures, all but killing the special legislative session that was called to deal with a looming $1 billion budget shortfall.

The last of many disagreements over 13 days came over the order of the votes on two bills that were essential to a compromise, and it was clear that neither side trusted the other enough to approve its bill first.

Democrats said they had an agreement to vote first on House Bill 8 by Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, which would reduce the deductions that Louisianans can claim on their state taxes. But many Democrats and some Republicans were surprised when GOP leaders decided to vote first on House Bill 23, by Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, which would have extended a quarter of a penny increase in state sales tax until 2021.

Legislative Black Caucus members and other Democrats had opposed Dwight’s bill, which would have raised $290 million, out of concern that a sales tax increase would hurt poor people disproportionately. But they had agreed to vote for it if Leger’s bill, which would have raised $79 million from wealthier taxpayers, was approved first to help balance the burden.

But when Leger asked to put his vote first, the House voted 45-58 against it. And despite impassioned requests by Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, and Rep. Katrina, Jackson, D-Monroe, to put his bill aside for a few moments to allow a vote on Leger’s bill and keep the session from collapsing, Dwight refused and insisted on a vote that would eventually kill his bill.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Stokes said there had been an agreement to put Leger’s bill first and “apparently there was a decision by some to not respect that agreement or not to go that way.” She said the minute they decided to take up the vote, the chamber knew the special session was about to end.

“There were a lot of us at the last minute that tried to save that from happening, and of course it didn’t work, because everybody’s so partisan,” she added. “It’s so divided that people can’t come together and trust one another to make something work.”

Dwight agreed that “the trust was broken this session on all levels.”

The House adjourned until 4 p.m. on Monday. Dwight’s bill, which Republicans have said is essential to any compromise, has failed twice and cannot be brought up again, suggesting that there is little chance left to find a solution.

The bitterness over how the potential deal collapsed in the House also could make it hard for lawmakers to come to agreements over major cuts in state services that now will be required in the regular session and makes it likely that there will be another special session in June to consider tax measures.

Some Democrats would not vote for either Leger’s bill or Dwight’s bill unless an amendment was removed that linked those measures to bills tightening eligibility for Medicaid recipients and encouraging them to work.

Before voting down Dwight’s bill, lawmakers removed the Medicaid amendment.

“How many times do we have to return it to the calendar?” Dwight said in response to the appeals to vote on Leger’s bill first. “It’s the Groundhog Day all over again… I understand your concern, but I’m ready to run the bill.”

He said that he wanted his and Leger’s bills to pass in tandem and would have voted for each.

Dwight also said he was left out of backroom negotiations over his bill involving Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia,and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.

Dwight said he did not find out until he arrived at the House Sunday afternoon that there would be a vote to remove the Medicaid amendment from his bill.

“There was a total lack of communication on all sides,” Dwight said after the vote. “I really wanted something to happen, and it didn’t…I’m in total shock.”

He also said that while he supported the Medicaid provisions as part of a larger compromise, he never thought, as some Republican legislators did, that they needed to be attached to his bill.

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, said he did not know about a potential deal involving the two bills, but agreed on the lack of communication.

“We have broken the institution that is our state republic,” he said, claiming the Legislature has suffered a “downward spiral” since former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure. “There’s no trust in this body.”

Gov. Edwards and other Democratic leaders also claimed that Republicans had not negotiated in good faith.

“Every budget reform proposal put on the table passed out of the House,” Edwards wrote in a tweet Sunday night after the vote, referring to GOP bills to control spending. “House Republican leadership did not negotiate in good faith… A vast majority of the House wanted to solve this problem, but were not given the chance.”

Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, the Democratic Caucus chair, wrote in a statement Sunday night that the Republicans “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. If you don’t have leadership, you don’t have anything.”

But some Republicans argued their party had made the necessary concessions, and it was the Democrats, particularly the Legislative Black Caucus, who were to blame. Four members of the caucus voted against Leger’s bill on Friday because of the Medicaid amendments.

“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,” Speaker Barras wrote in a statement. “The Governor’s efforts to only accept revenue increases to equal 100 percent of his calculation of the fiscal cliff caused frustration with his all or nothing demands.”

Barras voted against Dwight’s bill. Some Republicans had contended throughout the session that the budget gap is likely to be smaller than projected and that there was no urgency to raise more money.

“Obviously, this was a ‘Sine Die’ moment,” Stokes said, referring to the motion that would end the session for good. Alario had said that the House had to send over a compromise bill by Monday for the Senate to have time to also pass any revenue measures.

“It’s over at this point,” Stokes said. “But instead of letting the thing ‘Sine Die’, somebody adjourned the session, which means that 144 people get per diem [payment] for another day.”

Taxpayers pay around $60,000 for each day of a special session.