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Political hijinks based on fates of education, tax bills

Political hijinks were on display yesterday around the Louisiana Capitol as committees tried specially to meet as the sun went down and members went on walkabouts.

Normally, during the session a third of the House’s standing legislative committees meet on Monday mornings, another third on Tuesday mornings. The final third, those considered less busy, meet on Wednesdays, while Thursday is considered a day to take care of extra business not otherwise covered earlier in the week. Only Appropriations tends to be irregular, sometimes meeting after adjournment of the floor and/or on Fridays and/or weekends. But yesterday, rare meetings of Education, a Tuesday committee, and Ways and Means, a Monday committee, were scheduled after floor adjournment, which occurred at nearly 7 PM.

Education was to take up several bills, most controversially two authored by state Rep. Steve Carter that would substantially affect operations of local school boards. It had heard many earlier that day, but not, as scheduled, Carter’s providing the rationale for reconvening later. Ways and Means also had several measures, but one stood out for its notoriety: HB 889 by state Rep. Karen Peterson that would raise tobacco taxes and dedicate them to a number of purposes including education and health care.

Two Republican members of Education, Carter and state Rep. Frank Hoffman (its vice chairman), also serve on Ways and Means. On a previous bill by Peterson which had tried to raise tobacco taxes even more and did not specifically dedicate funds, in committee Carter had voted for it and Hoffman against where it lost narrowly. Education’s meeting was delayed specifically to allow these two to participate in Ways and Means’, quite practically because the author Carter should be present for considerations of his bills. As it was, these two would be needed to make the quorum for Ways and Means.

But Carter and Hoffman never made it to Ways and Means, and neither committee met. Peterson asserted she heard the wayward legislators had been on the floor of the building containing the Governor’s Office. Gov. Bobby Jindal has expressed support of Carter’s two bills, but has criticized Peterson’s. Carter later answered ambiguously about his activities but said he was disappointed the bills had not been handled that day. Carter said he would try again, presumably next week. Education Chairman Democrat state Rep. Austin Badon said he got word he ought to adjourn without hearing them last night.

Circumspection by politicians on this matter means no clear answer will be given. But inferring from the sequence of events, it’s logical that Jindal has tied the fate of Carter’s bills to Peterson’s. In the morning, there appeared to be no fairly reasonable chance that Carter’s bills would go forward, and in that instance authors typically work for postponements. Similarly, the rush to hear HB 889 comes because the House is getting ready to deal with HB 1, the general appropriations bill. Unlike her previous effort HB 75, which suffered defeat from a cigarette pack tax hike of a dollar putting prices well above those of border states and without a clear dedication of funds, the 50 cent increase would put packs at prices comparable to border states and the dedications make it appear funds would go to worthy areas of expenditure hard hit by the current revenue shortfall in state government. In other words, this bill has the potential to go much farther in the process than it previous incarnation

Still, that bill has no chance at becoming law because even if the required two-thirds vote in each chamber got it to Jindal, his veto would make some supporters reconsider and there would be no override. But this would make Jindal look bad, part of Peterson’s objective as the Democrat Party official wishes to follow her national party leaders in tarnishing Republican Jindal’s image given his threat to blossom into a future national leader, this blocking of a tax increase that has popular support that would put funds in areas where there is consensus more money should go. Therefore, his objective is to cut off the bill as early as possible in the process.

Opponents of Jindal and supporters of the funding, largely but not exclusively the same people, wanted this quick consideration in Ways and Means because it could materially alter HB 1: if there seemed to be some guarantee HB 889 would make it out of the House, HB 1 could be amended in it to add in all sorts of new spending. But if HB 1 gets significantly farther along in the process than HB 889 (and it is scheduled to be debated tomorrow), there is less pressure on to pass the latter. Also, every day that HB 889 gets delayed in hearing is one day closer to the end of the session where its opponents can run out the clock on it before it gets too far.

Therefore, it appears the strategy was for Hoffman and Carter to play hooky to slow down the process. While for Carter delay also may have given him a chance to shore up support for his bills, it may also have given Jindal Administration operatives a chance to impress on Carter that the toss-up support for his bills might turn negative if he did not reconsider his past support for higher tobacco taxes. If so, this puts him in a tight spot because the present bill seems more moderate than its predecessor.

All in a day’s, and night’s, work at the Capitol. Only about another six weeks worth to go.

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