In the windshield wiper world of political commentary, the twilight of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration was widely accepted just a couple weeks ago.
True, when backed by big business and clergy, many Louisiana legislators found enough courage to oppose Jindal’s designs on eliminating state income taxes and replacing the lost revenues with increased sales taxes.
That was then.
The one true constant in Louisiana politics is that the Legislature folds faster than lawn furniture. Here are two examples from last week.
Back when Jindal was seeking support for the tax swap, the governor was telling legislators that he would now support increasing cigarette taxes.
Consequently, legislators arrived in Baton Rouge earlier this month assuming the Legislature would finally pass a bill to increase the taxes on cigarettes after several tries. The governor’s support heartened, in particular, state Rep. Harold Ritchie, a smoker and funeral home director who had championed previous efforts to renew or increase tobacco taxes. “I walked into the session thinking, ‘This is the year,’” said Ritchie, D-Bogalusa. His House Bill 417 would increase by a $1.05 the current 36-cents per pack tax.
But, after the GOP legislative majority announced it would hear no tax swap bills, Jindal said he would oppose any cigarette tax unless it was “revenue neutral,” meaning that the tax hike needed to be linked to some other tax cut of a similar amount.
The announcement caused a sea change among many legislators’ opinions by the time Ritchie’s bill reached committee hearing on Monday, he said. During the hearing, Ritchie said he calculated the “no” votes and voluntarily withdrew his measure. Under the rules, Ritchie can bring back his tax bill, but he says he won’t “absent some huge train wreck.”
The next day, state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, floated House Bill 537, a 32-cents per pack increase, as a constitutional amendment, which she said would circumvent the governor. Her bill was defeated in the GOP-dominated House Ways and Means Committee.
“I don’t think you saw the collapse of the independent Legislature. You saw one hang up,” Jackson said Thursday.
That leaves only one proposal. State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, wants to increase the cigarette tax by 60 cents per pack and offset losses from eliminating state corporate franchise taxes. But, Talbot says, he is still trying figure out how to make the numbers work.
Another assumed slam dunk going into the session was that the ever-popular, merit-based TOPS scholarships would be capped or modified somehow to protect the state’s financial stability. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students pays tuition and some fees for students who meet several academic requirements.
But TOPS is expected to cost about $204 million next year and is expected to grow more as colleges and universities raise tuition to offset state budget cuts.
Even House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, was talking about the need to do something with TOPS – like “put a cap on TOPS” to keep the program financially viable.
That lasted about a week until Jindal was asked his opinion by an Advocate reporter at a Dutchtown High School photo op. “I don’t see any need to cap TOPS,” Jindal said to thunderous applause.
Within an hour, Kleckley was saying, “I think cap is probably too strong a word.”
State Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, said Thursday he understood why the Senate Education Committee so quickly shunted aside his Senate Bill 83, which would cap TOPS awards at 10 percent of this spring’s tuition.
Morrish said he’s a big fan of TOPS, which like social security, is fast becoming financially unstable.
But it is a hard vote, he said. Many middle-class parents are ardent and vocal in their belief that TOPS is the one state government program that benefits them directly, Morrish said. Jindal’s comments gave senators cover to avoid making a tough decision, he said.
During testimony at the Senate Education hearing for SB83, James Caillier of the Taylor Foundation said the real issue with TOPS is that much of the money comes from the state general fund. He suggested the cigarette tax might be a good source of continuing revenues.
Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metarie, responded by acknowledging that the finances for the scholarship were in jeopardy. “We may have problems as early as next year,” Appel mused, but then rejected the measure.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.