Saturday, March 03, 2018

The "adults" are running out of time to do any adulting

It's already March.  Carnival season is over and it's time for media outlets across South Louisiana to fire up their clickbaity... okay, useful but still clickbaity... crawfish price index thingies.  WGNO's is the first one to come up in my google search result so I guess they are winning right now. Let's see what they've found.
The average for live crawfish is $3.12 per pound, while boiled is running $4.46 per pound, as of Thursday, Feb. 22.
Yeah, I think that's high too. Still, it's not as bad as I thought it might be given the freeze last month.  But I'm no expert on aquaculture. I only know what I read in the papers.  And that says the freeze may delay production this year but it won't necessarily hurt it once things start rolling.  In any case, I'm hoping there's still enough available come early July. That is when we will need to have a big crawfish boil on the state capitol grounds. It will be fun way to pass the time during the shutdown.
With the special session just hours away, neither House Republicans nor Democrats had come to a clear agreement on whether it would successfully pass anything. Edwards has said that he doesn’t believe that the Legislature will pass a budget during the regular session that begins March 12, without an infusion of additional revenue because the cuts would be too drastic. That would force another special session after the regular session ends June 4. A budget must be approved by July 1 or there would be a state government shutdown.
The cycle should be familiar by now.  Thanks to a decade of gimmick budgets and costly tax giveaways to wealthy special interests, the state is broke.  Every year brings a new round of devastating cuts, primarily to health care and higher education.  Every year the legislative session ..and the accompanying special session(s).. features a mad scramble to plug a budget shortfall.  This is accomplished precariously through more gimmicks and cuts and temporary sales taxes nobody likes setting up another round of the same battles the following year. This is the year several of those compounded tricks and gimmicks come due as a number of revenue measures are set to sunset creating what has become commonly referred to as a "fiscal cliff."

While it's tempting to regard the absurd cycle with a fatalist sigh about political incompetence or pithy comments about our state's supposed backwardness, there's actually a more straightforward explanation. We have not arrived at the legislative impasse by accident. We are here as a result of deliberate strategy executed by the Republican leadership. If it continues to be successful, and there's little reason to believe it won't, we're more than likely headed for a shutdown in July. Which, again, is why it's a good idea to keep an eye on crawfish prices.

Less than a year into Barack Obama's first term as President, Mitch McConnell famously declared “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” McConnell may not have accomplished that goal. But there's a strong argument the Republican strategy for obstructing Obama's domestic agenda was largely a success. Most notably, Obama's signature achievement health care reform was watered down, delayed, and is now on the verge of unraveling thanks to Republican stubbornness. McConnell was even able to steal a Supreme Court nomination from Obama by sitting on his hands for months. There are numerous other examples but suffice to say the GOP #Resistance to Obama provides a model of how to effectively run an opposition party.  If the Democratic #Resistance movement manages to flip the Congress this year, it will be interesting to see if their party's leadership learns anything from it.

In the meantime, though, Louisiana Republicans understand the model quite well. It's been an open secret around Baton Rouge that their legislative strategy has prioritized limiting John Bel Edwards to one term as Governor above all other concerns. They've managed to resist progressive budgetary reforms for the past two years and are preparing to leverage the continuing crisis against Edwards during the next election.

Now that the next election is already beginning to take shape, the incentive to maintain the bugetary status quo has become even stronger. The current special session has been punctuated with cameo appearances by potential Republican gubernatorial candidates offering advice. On the day the session opened, Ralph Abraham gave a talk where he said he was against any "new taxes." This week, Steve Scalise said the problem has something to do with "the vestiges of Huey Long." John Kennedy said something stupid about art. Jeff Landry has been relatively quiet, but he's been dealing with a lot of things lately. Rest assured, he'll have something to say eventually.

For his part, the Governor has been doing some campaigning as well.  Last week he took some time during one of many extended House recesses to tell the St. Tammany Chamber he would be "as flexible as I can about how we fix the (fiscal) cliff." But added, "I will not be flexible about whether we fix it, because we have to." And that pretty much lays out the stakes of this session, politically.  The Governor needs to fix the cliff. The Republicans need him to fail. All of the breakdowns and antics we've seen during the session proceed from that conflict.

Republicans opened fiscal cliff negotiations (such as they have been) demanding a number of things that don't actually have anything to do with fixing the cliff. Mark Ballard describes some of them in this column. He also momentarily capitulates to the conceit that any of these is a "fiscal reform" but nevermind that for a sec.
A wrinkle is that Republicans have insisted that any tax bills that come out of their chamber include a rider that says the tax increase won’t go into effect unless one of their fiscal reform measures also passes.

These revamps — the so-called Ohio checkbook, a hard spending cap, and changes to Medicaid — provide political cover for those who were elected chanting “the state has spending problem, not a revenue problem.”

But the riders are kind of insulting to the age-old legislative process of people giving their word and keeping it, state Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, said when the first one was amended onto Dwight’s bill.

If the riders make it easier for House Republicans to vote for sales and income taxes, though, then James said he’s OK with them. “They’ll be stripped off when the adults get these bills in the Senate,” he added.
Some version of that "adults" comment shows up during every legislative session and it always makes me laugh.  It's true that the Senate can and often does undo some of the stupidest damage done in the House. But they've never been able to un-fuck the budget. And recently it seems their efforts are more and more likely to end in tears. This session, the "adults," haven't had an opportunity to do much of anything at all.  And time is running out so when or if they ever get around to fixing the House's mess, it might just prove too much to negotiate.

And make no mistake, wasting time is the primary purpose of the Republican bills.  The "Ohio Checkbook" Ballard refers to is just a website.
As president of LABI, Waguespack is paid to ensure that legislators prioritize tax cuts and exemptions for corporations above anything else, which is why, rather than confront the immediate crisis of a $1 billion shortfall, he is pitching a website that tracks government spending.

Never mind that Louisiana already has such a website; it’s too “clunky.” Ignore the fact that the non-partisan organization United States Public Interest Research Group ranks our state’s current website seventh in the entire country, praising “Louisiana as a ‘leading state’ in offering an easy-to-use website and providing data on an array of expenditures,” as Devon Sanders of LSU’s Manship News Service reported only two weeks ago in The Daily Advertiser.  And pay no attention to the fact that it will take years before it could even be operational. Louisiana Checkbook, we are told, will help us finally solve our budget woes by shining a brighter light on wasteful government spending.
As a "transparency" tool it is redundant.  As conservative propaganda it might serve some purpose... at the expense of Louisiana taxpayers, of course.  As for Medicaid reforms, there are two bills in play. One of them imposes more strict eligibility requirements. The other one... well, it turns out the other one doesn't actually do anything.
The Louisiana House voted 69-29 for legislation Friday (March 2) that was originally aimed at requiring some Medicaid recipients to work to receive their government health benefits, but that has been altered such that Medicaid recipients who refused to work couldn't actually lose their health care.
During committee debate Republicans continually insisted that their work requirement bill was not an attempt to deny health care to anyone. So Marcus Hunter (D-Monroe) called the bluff with an amendment that explicitly says no one can be separated from Medicaid for failing to meet the work requirements. The amendment passed and so here we are with a bill that doesn't do anything... besides cost money, of course. These "fiscal hawk" Republicans do seem to love their wasteful spending bills.

The reason we're still having to deal with any of this nonsense during a fiscal session is because the fate of those bills along with a measure to tighten the state spending cap were attached to the key revenue bills in committee by something Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) called the "Michael Jordan of amendments." 
But then came the “chain” amendment, shackling passage of Dwight’s bill to passage of seven others: HB 2, HB 3, HB 11, HB 12, HB 29, HCR 2, and HB 15. Those include work requirements for Medicaid, as well as co-pays and premium payments. In addition, the Speaker’s measures for lowering the state spending cap and for establishing the Louisiana checkbook must pass for Dwight’s bill to take effect: all or nothing.

Baton Rouge Representative Ted James began laughing, incredulously.

“This is amazing!” he said. “This is like the Michael Jordan of amendments! Dwight, are you okay with this amendment?”

Stephen Dwight's (R-Lake Charles) bill would "clean" four pennies of the existing sales tax which is to say it eliminates certain exclusions and exemptions. It also extends a quarter of the otherwise expiring fifth penny. The Democrats say they absolutely hate having to balance the budget with higher sales taxes because, as they correctly assert, the sales tax is the most regressive way the state can raise money. It overburdens the poor at the same time that the state tax code is full of special carve-outs and subsidies for global industrial corporations, movie production companies, and various other business"incentive" schemes of questionable benefit. Naturally, the House Republicans are fine with all of these giveaways.  It remains something of an open question whether they're even going to list them on their spending "transparency" website. In any case there's a lot of revenue potential left on the table while the legislators argue over pennies.

This is one reason the Black Caucus has drawn a line in the sand demanding at least some sort of income tax adjustment
The House Black Caucus, which holds most of the House Democratic votes, told Barras Monday morning that its members would only vote to keep a higher sales tax rate in place for three more years if a measure to raise income taxes passes as well.

The Republicans don't like voting for any taxes, but find a sales tax hike less offensive than other options. The Black Caucus said sales tax increases are harder on poor people, and its members would prefer an income tax increase. 
The only bill that does anything with income taxes was filed by Walt Leger.  House Bill 8 would reduce the amount in federal itemized deductions Louisiana taxpayers could take on their state returns. So it's technically not really an income tax increase. But it is a slightly more progressive means of raising revenue than the sales tax.  It's the closest anything will come to meeting the Black Caucus's demand, anyway.

But Leger's income tax bill also has a "Michael Jordan amendment" attached.  This is thanks to the efforts of Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) who has been doing his best to submarine both the sales tax and income tax bills and therefore the entire session.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said he also heard a deal had been struck, "but I'm not part of it."

"I'm going to object (to the income tax bill) and make people vote and note those who take a walk," Seabaugh said. "There's no way I'm letting that bill out without a vote, and anybody that does vote for it is likely to find themselves voted out in the next election."
Seabuagh also managed to irk Democrats by adding yet another sunset provision to the sales tax bill and by calling the Governor a "bald-faced liar" from the House floor.  Reporters were saying that Edwards asked to meet with Seabaugh in his office afterwards but that meeting never happened. Donald Trump is considering Seabaugh for a federal judgeship.

Given all of this, it's no surprise House members spent "Do or Die Friday" not doing a whole lot. They gaveled in late and almost immediately gaveled out for meetings.  The meetings were not very productive so they went to lunch. They tried to pass Leger's bill but that darn Michael Jordan amendment took to blocking some shots. They met with the Governor. They huddled. They mini-huddled.  They walked in and out of the room. Some of them even managed to vote from outside of the room
Members are only supposed to vote for themselves according to House rules, but Henry's vote on the income tax deduction changes was recorded, even though he was absent all day. Present or not, Henry has said he won't be voting for any tax bills this session so his vote wouldn't help get the vote passed.

Eventually they decided they weren't getting anything done so they will have to try again on Sunday.
They'd better get this mess over to the Senate by then. Otherwise the "Adults" might never get a chance to fix it.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said the Senate won't be able to accept tax bills after Sunday night and get them legally through the full legislative process before the Legislature's session ends Wednesday.
There's very little reason to expect that they will make that deadline. As anyone who has been paying attention will tell you, fixing the mess isn't what any of this is all about. Barry Ivey has been paying attention.
Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, said some of his colleagues have been driven by politics and the goal of preventing Edwards from being a successful governor. (An assertion that Harris later rejected.)

"We don’t want a Democrat to get re-elected, and we don’t want to give him a political win by doing tax reform – that was something that was told to me,” Ivey said. "We've placed politics ahead of our constituents. We should all be ashamed. Myself included.”

That's been the strategy since Day One of the Edwards Administration and there's little reason to  believe the Republican leadership is going to deviate from it now that the next election year is so near up on us.  In other words, we have every reason to believe we're headed for a big posturing government shutdown come July.  We're gonna need a lot of crawfish.

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