By Drew White and Tryfon Boukouvidis, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE – When Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh of Shreveport filibustered in the final minutes of the legislative session Monday, he was not sure whether a last-ditch effort to vote on a revenue-raising bill he deemed disastrous would have succeeded.
But Seabaugh, who is one of about 20 House Republicans who have consistently voted against any tax increase, said in interviews that his maneuver to block the vote “was worth it,” even though it has placed him at the center of controversy over yet another failed legislative session.
Seabaugh said he objected to how the Senate had tacked a half-cent sales tax extension onto a minor bill, saying he felt the measures were “unrelated” and that it was “blatantly unconstitutional” to use that as a vehicle for a tax increase.
He also criticized the growth in state spending on health care under Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. While Democrats and most of the Republicans in the Senate want to protect health care programs from cuts, Seabaugh said the Legislature should trim the health budget to pay for other programs rather than extending any of the extra penny of sales tax that Edwards persuaded the Legislature to adopt in 2016 to ease a budget crisis.
“The first year Edwards got his way; this year we said no,” Seabaugh said.
“We have the second or third biggest budget in Louisiana history–more money than we have ever had as a state,” he added. “The problem is we are misapplying it.”
Seabaugh said he does not intend to vote for any sales tax extension in a third special session, which will run, Edwards announced Friday, from June 18 through June 27.
And in sticking defiantly to his guns, Seabaugh signaled that it could still be hard to reach a compromise in that session and previewed the kinds of attacks conservatives are likely to launch against Edwards when he runs for re-election next year.
Seabaugh’s decision to hold onto the microphone as the final minutes ticked down Monday night painted him as a villain in the eyes of Democrats and some moderate Republicans, but made him a hero for many conservatives.
Saying a compromise was needed, Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, rose to seek a re-vote on a Senate bill that would have extended a half-cent of sales tax. She had initially opposed the bill, which had received 64 votes, six short of the 70 needed, a half hour earlier.
But a second vote was prevented by Seabaugh, who went up to comment on the bill and was allowed by House Speaker Taylor Barras to keep talking. “Yes, I’m trying to run the clock out,” Seabaugh said, as Stokes shouted that the failure of the session was “on you, buddy.”
The House also had voted down a Republican bill that would have limited the sales tax extension to one-third of a cent. That meant there was nowhere near enough revenue to fund a budget that the Legislature passed Monday, and the result could be significant cuts in TOPS scholarships and funding for public universities, prisons and many other agencies.
Seabaugh questioned during Monday night’s debate whether it was proper for the Senate to attach a sales tax extension to a bill that mainly defined a term relating to the collection of taxes on Internet purchases.
Seabaugh, who is an attorney, said in the interview that the original bill was “harmless.” He said the Senate had added multiple objects to the bill, though the Louisiana Constitution says each bill can only have one.
Though other lawmakers disagree, he contended that this made the bill “blatantly unconstitutional,” raising the prospect that it could have been thrown out in court.
Seabaugh said there was no need for further compromise by the Republicans Monday night because GOP leaders had already compromised in proposing the third-of-a-cent extension.
Seabaugh voted for the temporary one-cent sales tax increase in 2016, but has opposed all tax-raising bills since.
“The solution to all these problems is on the spending side,” he said. “It’s not on the revenue side.”
Seabaugh said he believes that a 3 percent cut in the Louisiana Department of Health budget could fully fund TOPS, higher education and other vital state services.
The operating budget for the Health Department is projected to be $13.5 billion in fiscal 2019, with the state supplying about $2.4 billion and the rest coming from federal matching funds. Though the total budget rose by roughly 50 percent from $9 billion over the last three years, the vast majority of the increase has come from federal funding.
Seabaugh voiced a criticism common among conservatives — and one that is expected to be used in the 2019 gubernatorial campaign — that Edwards went too far when he expanded the Medicaid program to include more of the working poor.
Edwards touts that as one of his biggest achievements, and Seabaugh said the governor “is going to live or die on Medicaid expansion, which he did completely unilaterally without the Legislature.”
“They’re putting people that make enough money that shouldn’t be on Medicaid.” he said, “so people that are truly needy can’t get the medical care that they deserve. And he’s bankrupting the state, and he refuses to admit it.”
But Jan Moller, the director of Louisiana Budget Project, said the state could “absolutely not” raise as much money as Seabaugh thinks by trimming health spending. He said that for every state dollar it cut from Medicaid, it would lose $3 in federal funds.
Moller explained that before the Medicaid expansion, 480,000 uninsured Louisiana patients went into the charity hospital system when they got sick. The state paid for 40 percent of their care and the federal government paid for 60 percent.
Under Edwards’ Medicaid expansion, the state essentially just pays these people’s health insurance. The state’s share of the insurance policy is 6 percent, while the federal government is paying for 94 percent. The state’s 6 percent share is covered by an insurance premium tax charged to insurers, who have volunteered to pay for that tax.
Seabaugh also maintained that Louisiana is losing businesses and residents because of Edwards’ policies even as the rest of the country is doing well. “It’s because you have an administration that is chasing business out of the state,” he said, though he acknowledged that all the uncertainty in the Legislature also is a factor.
Seabaugh said he believes that the chances of the Legislature passing a sales tax extension are slim. But fellow Republican Rep. Jack McFarland of Jonesboro, who voted for the half-cent increase Monday, countered that “inevitably some piece of the sales tax has to be part of the solution.”
Seabaugh has earned a reputation as perhaps the most ardent anti-tax voice in the House. Edwards referred this week to him and others who will not vote for any tax bill as “that distinct hardcore caucus of no.”
Seabaugh even went so far earlier this year as to call Edwards a “bald-faced liar.” Edwards invited him to come talk about it. But “I didn’t go,” Seabaugh said. “I don’t work for him, and I’m not getting called to the principal’s office.”