Analysis: Relations frayed heading into tax overhaul debate
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — That was supposed to be the easy part.
The just-ended special legislative session, called to close a more than $300 million deficit, had so many teeth-gnashing, meltdown-threatening moments that it raises questions about the possibility of success heading into the far trickier legislative session that begins in April.
In that upcoming session, Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers want to tackle one of the most difficult of legislative subjects: redesigning the state’s tax structure.
Filtered through the lens of the 10-day special session, it seems an even tougher task than expected.
Distrust still remains between the House and Senate, and it appears that nearly every big debate threatens to become a partisan clash between the conservative Republicans who lead the House and the Democratic governor who was once a member of the chamber.
When the House, Senate and Edwards reached a deficit-closing deal in the final hours of the special session, legislative leaders and the governor hailed the compromise. They said the agreement showed challenging tasks can be accomplished in the Legislature.
Edwards said the task was “harder I think than it needed to be.” But he added: “At the end of the day, the process worked, and we can all be proud of that because there was some reason to doubt coming in whether we’d all be able to work together.”
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said he thought the session ended well: “I look forward to a great start in April.”
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, talked of democracy proving to work: “In a good compromise, nobody feels 100 percent comfortable.”
They glossed over the tensions. That doesn’t mean the rifts are mended.
Lawmakers agreed to use $99 million from Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund, to tap into other available financing and to cut $82 million in agencies’ spending for the remaining four months of the budget year, to erase the deficit.
Deep cuts had been avoided. Lawmakers even managed to wrap up a few hours early.
Over the course of the deal-making, however, Senate leaders questioned with whom they should haggle since the House had so many competing factions that it seemed no leader represented the votes needed to pass legislation. House Republicans accused the Edwards administration of being disrespectful and flippant. The governor’s office at one point briefly cut off negotiations with the House.
The strained relationship between GOP leaders in the House and the Democratic governor stems from more than a year ago, when lawmakers bucked Edwards’ wishes and picked their own House speaker. Louisiana governors typically had a heavy say in the decision-making.
“He’s at a disadvantage unlike previous governors who probably had a stronger hand over what happens in the House. I think at times that probably frustrates him, which I can appreciate,” said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who regularly clashes with the governor.
Still, Henry said: “We’re going to try to continue to work well together.”
Edwards said he believed his relationship with the House improved, but that seemed to be mainly because he got much of what he wanted out of the session.
Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, the House’s highest-ranking Democrat, didn’t think the special session’s tensions made the next session any trickier.
“I think the tax reform issue is challenging to begin with. I don’t think anything that’s happened here has changed the complexity of that,” Leger said.
A true tax overhaul, if it happens, will involve picking winners and losers, as laws are rewritten to determine who pays more and who pays less. Some changes require a hefty two-thirds vote to pass.
While the governor and the moderate Senate are often of similar mindsets, Edwards and the House seem diametrically opposed. Ideas about what constitutes “tax reform” could be wildly different from the competing sides.
Edwards said he’s optimistic he and lawmakers can cobble together a more stabilizing tax structure that ends repeated cycles of financial uncertainty. But he acknowledged it will be harder to reach a deal in the next session.
“I’m optimistic, but I’m certainly not delusional,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte