A small coterie of Senate committees has spiked a passel of legislation that brings cheer to conservatives. Efforts to roll back a sales tax hike early, bring down insurance rates, increase efforts to root out fraud in benefits programs, allow enforcement of the death penalty, and stabilize state finances have fizzled when encountering panels comprised of a majority of Democrats and/or big government Republicans.
This arrangement where the larger Senate has a majority of fiscally conservative Republicans that likely would have approved all of these measures has occurred because of Louisiana’s personalistic political culture, which overemphasizes and magnifies the ability of politicians to distribute resources to favored constituencies. Power that accumulated into the hands of Republican Sen. Pres. John Alario, who has spent nearly half a century seeking power and privilege in the Legislature, was put into the service of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards to stack the committees on Revenue and Fiscal Affairs, Senate and Government Affairs, and the three Judiciary ones with these fellow travelers who don’t represent the Senate majority nor the state’s people as a whole.
However, conservative Republicans haven’t helped their own agenda by their reticence to use hardball tactics to overcome this perversion of majority rule. A case in point centers around the fate of HB 372, the bill opposed by legislative Democrats and Edwards that almost certainly would have lowered vehicle insurance rates thus saving Louisianans hundreds of millions of dollars in annual premiums.
Democrats opposed it because current law richly rewards trial lawyers at ratepayer expense, and that lobby give generously to Democrats. Blocked by the Senate committee, the bill’s contents revived when a House panel read those into a related bill, SB 212. It then headed to the House floor, with Democrats vowing to challenge it.
At this point, conservative Republican leaders could have parlayed this metamorphosis in a number of ways, in combination with other bills such as HB 599, the sales tax cut, or with provisions of HB 105, the general appropriations bill with the major disagreement over giving elementary and secondary education additional money beyond pay raises. They could go all out to preserve the modified SB 212, which originally dealt with researching and reporting on commercial vehicle insurance rates, or trade it away for movement on HB 599 or dropping extra money for education out of HB 105, or various combinations, among other things.
This all remained possible as long as HB 212 stayed in its new form. Democrats wanted to have those additions stripped by challenging the germaneness of the amendments. By the chamber’s own rules, that was questionable. Customary usage dictates that while the “Speaker does not rule on germaneness absent a challenge,” it also notes that the “House does not question germaneness of committee amendments” (with germaneness defined in Rule 11.1 simply as “Every amendment shall be germane to the instrument as introduced”). In other words, germaneness challenges should apply only to amendments made on the floor, not in committee (although with some gray area here as the challenge came on accepting the committee amendments).
But when GOP Speaker Taylor Barras did receive that challenge, he capitulated, saying that he thought only one of the discrete amendments was germane. With that, the body acquiesced to strip all of these, returning SB 212 to its original form and throwing away the bargaining chip that could have led to saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars and/or not requiring increased educator standards in exchange for giving more money to the lowest-achieving educational system in the country.
Taking this course seems even more baffling when considering that Barras that same day ruled germane to a Senate bill exempting diapers and feminine hygiene products from sales taxation floor amendments offered to restore sales tax holidays – a greater stretch than in the case of SB 212. Perhaps that seeming randomness in rationale reflected a bargaining strategy, but clearly over smaller issues.
Maybe the GOP leadership’s reluctance to swing for the fences reflects a belief that next year will be different, with Edwards failing to get reelected and Senate outcomes more faithfully reflecting the people’s wishes. But the people would have benefitted now, not in some hypothetical future where anything could (or could not) happen, and pushing through conservative legislation past Senate leadership attempts to short-circuit it would have put Edwards on the spot to defend his opposition to these things with his decision to sign or veto these measures that would likely have harmed his reelection chances.
Instead, we’re left with government as usual, with liberal Democrats successfully resisting beneficial change. Their efforts would pay off much less if conservative Republicans would stand up to them more often.