Analysis: Louisiana Tax Deal Was About Politics, Not Policy
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Maybe it was Louisiana lawmakers' exhaustion after four legislative sessions this year. Maybe everyone was so ready to go home they caved and voted for what would get them there. Maybe the urgency of cuts only days away suddenly felt very real.
Whatever the reason, good tax policy had little to do with the final tax and budget deal that Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and a bipartisan mix of lawmakers in the GOP-led Legislature crafted to wrap up their third special session and avoid steep spending reductions.
Many lawmakers seemed almost giddy — dancing, clapping and taking selfies — after the agreement was struck and they could end the tense, frustrating months of arguing about state spending.
At the end, House lawmakers only were bickering over fractions of a cent, but the divided chamber still almost couldn't reach a deal.
The unexpected path to a final compromise — to renew 0.45 percent of an expiring 1 percent state sales tax and raise $463 million to stave off cuts — came from an unlikely person, Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Paula Davis.
Davis, a real estate agent, is a freshman lawmaker who has largely avoided public controversy since taking office, not carrying the types of controversial bills that would suggest she'd put herself in the middle of a maelstrom over taxes. She didn't vote for either sales tax proposal in the second special session that cratered without a deal.
But Davis is well-liked among members, not abrasive. And, as she told Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Dan Claitor on his local radio show: "I have pretty thick skin." That might have been exactly what was needed.
Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras warned sales tax bill sponsors to be prepared.
Barras said he told them "this one could get more emotional, more intense, 'cause this is our final chance, so to speak. And I just need to make sure you're level-headed, remain strong, can handle it until the end because it's going to get probably messy before we get there."
The House speaker, who helped block previous agreements on taxes, also gave lawmakers trying to rally tax votes an assurance. He said he told them if one of their tax measures had enough support to pass, "I will not stop that process."
When the deal on the 0.45 tax rate came up for approval, Barras supported it, lighting up his green button early enough to show other reticent Republicans his decision.
"At the moment we most needed you, you stood up and made things happen," said Rep. Sam Jones, a Franklin Democrat and close ally of Edwards.
Though House GOP leader Lance Harris didn't support the final tax, he didn't work to block it, a critical decision that helped pass the deal. And business groups quietly backed the bill, important because their opposition could have tanked a tax with Republicans.
The Senate saw little public dispute since Republican Senate President John Alario is the consummate dealmaker behind the scenes. Democratic Senate leaders, such as Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Chairman J.P. Morrell, who didn't favor sales taxes as the path to a budget fix, reached agreements on funding priorities that helped remove their opposition.
Of course, the urgency of budget cuts only days away that threatened to eliminate food stamps and force college students to scramble to fill gaps in TOPS tuition aid amped up the scrambling for agreement. The final deal avoided all the worst-case-scenario reductions.
Perhaps one of the largest driving factors to reaching a compromise was the desire to leave the Louisiana Capitol without worry another special session was right around the corner. Legislative absences have ticked upward all year, with some lawmakers missing a third or more votes during some sessions.
The House and Senate have spent 46 weeks — nearly an entire year — in session since 2016, as Edwards repeatedly called them back to work on closing budget gaps.
Sen. Jack Donahue, the Mandeville Republican who handled Davis' sales tax bill in the Senate, told senators: "I know you all are as sick of this as I am. It seems like we've been here forever. I'd like to go home."
– by Melinda Deslatte, AP reporter