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Political Horizons: Legislative Kumbaya moment likely to be shortened by coming elections

October 14, 2017
By Mark Ballard
Originally Posted on The Advocate

Perhaps feeling that voters are reaching the end of their tolerance for dysfunctional government, Louisiana House members of both parties gathered Thursday to talk about how to deal with the impending “fiscal cliff.”

Fiscal staff told the legislators that the state would be $1.52 billion short of the money necessary to pay for today’s level of services next year, assuming nothing changes.

Much of that shortfall comes when the one-cent sales tax increase expires in June 2018. That temporary tax was supposed to buy time for lawmakers to fix the state’s financial structure.

That didn’t happen and the Legislature will convene March 12, maybe earlier, to once again cobble together a balanced budget among legislators who hold sharp partisan differences.

Republican House Majority Leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria, described Thursday’s “retreat” as a first step, more education than Kumbaya.

House staffers displayed, in full color, the $6.86 billion the state is losing this year from 469 tax exemption programs along with the 210 measures that went before the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee but generated no new revenues.

At the top of a PowerPoint discussing what to do was a plea for legislators to make “a clear statement of priorities.”

There’s the rub. Lawmakers disagree over what deserves funding and what does not.

Some want to use the limited dollars to protect, say, TOPS, the grant that pays much of the college tuition for students of modest academic accomplishments. Others want to ensure, for instance, that rural hospitals can continue to provide health care a little closer to home.

Despite all the “live within our means” bromides, legislators haven’t shown the backbone to cut already depleted government programs, or to raise taxes, or to hack tax breaks for the business community.

Looming over all their current promises of compromise is the 2019 elections, which because of term limits means the replacement of 40 percent of the representatives and senators, reshaping the partisan calculus. Sixteen of the 39 Senate seats and 38 of the 105 seats in the House will become vacant because the present occupants have served their allotted three terms.

Democrats hope to pick up a couple of seats to strengthen the coalition with the moderate Republicans who defied House majority leadership and passed the budget. Republicans want a few changes to make the 25-14 majority in the state Senate less of a stopgap for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and to add to 59-46 the Republican majority more representatives willing to follow House leadership.

That’s the goal of the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, said Attorney General Jeff Landry, who chairs LCRM and expects to raise $3 million for the 2019 elections.

“What we’ve learned is that a lot of elected officials who were Democrats switched parties as a political expediency,” Landry said Friday. But they have maintained their old ways. “We’re going to root that out.”

The group will support the more conservative candidate in Republican-versus-Republican races. It’s recruiting candidates for the open seats.

But there are bigger stakes than how Louisiana’s budget is crafted, wrote John Diez, who went from working on David Vitter’s 2015 gubernatorial effort to running the political arm of the powerful Louisiana Association of Business & Industry.

National parties are focusing on 2019 legislative races across the country because state legislatures in 2021 will redraw the district lines from which congressmen are elected.

“This will set the stage for even more contentious battles than we have seen in the past decade in the Bayou State,” Diez wrote in The Hayride, a conservative blog. “Currently, (national) Democrats are eyeing the 24 seats they need to gain control of Congress, and the Louisiana Congressional delegation is a prime target to flip if Congressional boundaries are shifted.”

But that all depends on how the Legislature looks after the 2019 elections.

Republicans should be able to pick up three or four seats west of the Atchafalaya Basin, says John Couvillon, the Baton Rouge political pollster who studies voting trends. The largely rural area has long leaned conservative but traditionally backed Democrats. As the party has become more urban-based, those rural voters increasingly have leaned Republican.

That should put into play seats held by term-limited Democrats like Mike Danahay, of Sulphur, and James Armes, of Leesville.

Theoretically, it should, but unlike larger urban areas, legislators in the small communities are more likely to know their constituents by name. They go to church with them, do business with them, or were taught in school by them.

In those instances, party affiliation takes a back seat to personal relationships. “It’s not as simple as the party strategists would hope,” Couvillon said.