Political Horizons: Public input impacts budget alternative

State Rep. Joel Robideaux sometimes leaves his seat on the front row of the Louisiana House chamber to sit in the galleries just to watch legislative proceedings.

If you have a sense of how the game is played, politics is really fascinating theater, the Lafayette Republican said last week while watching two powerful committee chairmen verbally thrust and parry on the House floor.

Similarly, Robideaux admits to being “kind of excited” when everyday people took an interest in his avocation, even if it meant that he, a self-described conservative, was criticized as a “tax-and-spend liberal” by other self-described conservatives.

“It’s a double-edged sword to be sure,” he said. “A lot of members felt that the direct attacks were unjustified.”

Vitriol also is part of the game, particularly these days, Robideaux said.

He had helped the House create and present its own version of legislation that would dictate how state government spends nearly $25 billion for the year beginning July 1. Though elected assemblies in most states draft their own versions of state budgets, Louisiana legislators, historically, have fiddled along the edges of whatever a governor submits.

The alternative House Bill 1 passed the House last week after much debate and negotiation. It will be center of attention this week in the state Senate.

Louisiana, again, is short by about $1 billion in the money needed to keep state government functioning at current levels. In February, Jindal proposed a spending plan that relied on nearly $500 million from contingencies, such as property that has not yet been sold, and “one time” money, such as lawsuit settlements.

Angered at what they called an irresponsible spending plan, “fiscal hawk” Republicans and Democrats challenged the governor by cobbling their own budget plan. Early versions suggested a 15 percent decrease in many of the 450 or so tax exemptions in hopes of raising more revenues.

Reaction was swift.

In early May, Jindal stood with the same special-interest lobbyists and lawyers he had excoriated in March. Jindal had backed eliminating many of the tax exemptions as part of a plan to offset revenues lost from abolishing income taxes. But rolling back the exemptions, on which many companies base their business plans, without lowering other taxes, amounted to a tax increase, he said.

Going down the list of tax exemptions that were initially targeted for a partial rollback in the House alternative, Bob Reid of the Tea Party of Louisiana said he’d be perfectly fine with getting rid of each one. But in this situation, he agreed that any reduction in any tax credit equaled more taxes.

Reid’s tea party group spent $10,000 to $15,000 to make about a half-million automated phone calls — or “robo calls” — to condemn the House alternative, according to Cecil J. Cavanaugh, the board member who handles the group’s finances.

Cavanaugh said he was incensed that the House Ways and Means committee, which Robideaux chairs, rushed bills about tax exemptions that could be amended to decrease the amount forgiven to taxpayers.

“There was a total lack of transparency,” Cavanaugh said. He refused to disclose who provided the money that helped pay for the “robo calls.”

Jason DorĂ©, executive director of the Republican Party of Louisiana, which delivered very similar messages in “robo calls,” said he couldn’t give exact statistics, but had heard that many members received more than 300 calls from constituents opposing the House alternative.

Though officials with the Governor’s Office, trade associations and citizen groups met occasionally and delivered the same message, DorĂ© said the efforts were not coordinated and were not paid for by the state’s party. “It was more of an all-hands-on-deck, kind of thing,” he said, in which everyone called everyone they knew to call. They reminded Republican legislators that the party’s Prime Directive is “no new taxes,” he said.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, head of the House Democratic caucus, says the alternative budget, which was influenced by the “robo calls,” was the product of many people with many different interests coming up with a solution that could work. The House’s package, for instance, contains procedural changes in how the budget is forged to better follow the state constitution, he said.

“It’s not about the ‘best package.’ It’s about the ‘best package’ that can get enough votes,” Edwards said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.