Political Horizons for June 26, 2011

Remember the old saw about it’s best not to see how sausages and laws are made?

Like car wrecks on the interstate and Hollywood ingénues in court, averting the eyes sometimes is just not an option. One of those moments happened last week when the Louisiana House revived the 4-cent tax renewal on cigarettes that a majority of legislators wanted — but Gov. Bobby Jindal didn’t.

Though seemingly inconsequential — it raises only $12 million a year — renewing four cents of the 36-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes became emblematic of Louisiana legislators trying to wriggle free of gubernatorial imperiousness. That struggle defined the 2011 session.

Scott Angelle, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and lead legislative strategist for Jindal, said he figured supporters would try to attach the renewal to another measure, using a procedure called “hitchhiking.”

“Clever,” Angelle said about the hitchhiker that would force Jindal to smother a pet bill on TOPS funding if he wanted to kill a tax renewal.

Bossier City state Rep. Jane Smith, who heads the House’s Republican delegation and handled Senate Bills 52 and 53 on the House floor, said she prepared for batting down amendments to water down the measures. She didn’t expect the 4-cent renewal to be one.

The TOPS scholarship program pays tuition and some fees at the state’s public universities. Because of anticipated tuition increases this fall, state government will have to shell out millions more for TOPS.

Senate Bills 52 and 53 would cover the increase, primarily, by dedicating to TOPS more of the annual income of the Millennium Trust Fund.

Smith said she knew what was happening the minute she saw Democratic state Rep. Harold Ritchie, of Bogalusa, walk down the aisle. A smoker, Ritchie led the fight for higher cigarette taxes this session, including the 4-cent renewal.

Smith said she immediately thought Ritchie’s gambit ran afoul of legislative rules that require hitchhikers to be somewhat related to the bill in which they ride.

But House Speaker Jim Tucker, who had been at her elbow the entire time, Smith recalled later, whispered that Ritchie’s amendment was germane.

The trick, Tucker, R-Terrytown, said later, was that the 4-cent renewal would flow through the Millennium Trust Fund, which comes largely from a lawsuit settlement with cigarette manufacturers, into an account that helps pay health-care expenses.

“Plan C,” as Tucker called it, emerged moments after Jindal rubbed legislators’ noses in the fact that Louisiana governors still — as always — rule the state, despite all the yapping about co-equal branches of government. Jindal had pressed 11 representatives to change their recorded votes and support his veto, which had killed the 4-cent renewal.

Tucker consoled Ritchie on the Speaker’s dais while his staff trolled for an appropriate ride. They leaned over a computer screen, fitting renewal language in each of the remaining bills that would change the state constitution, both said later. Constitutional amendments bypass the governor and go straight to state voters. The best fit was the TOPS bills.

House Democratic caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, of Amite, was brought in to help with tactics. He needed to keep renewal supporters in the chambers, but secretly, so that Angelle’s troops wouldn’t know what was up until too late, Edwards said.

Ritchie’s amendment succeeded with 59 votes, then the TOPS legislation won with 90 votes.

Tucker said he had counted only 62 votes — eight short of what was needed — for TOPS before the renewal was added.

As Tucker says, echoing oft-repeated comments wherever middle-class white people congregate: A near-free college education for students of even-modest academic achievement is the one entitlement they get from Louisiana government. But the well-to-do are not the state’s only residents. Some fiscal conservatives, black people, and the supporters of public K-12 schools argue that TOPS is an expensive lagniappe not available to all taxpayers.

In the end, the 4-cent renewal that Jindal hates likely will save the TOPS funding plan that the governor loves, Tucker said.

Could there be any better example of the kind of compromise the Founding Fathers envisioned when they created a system that pits two institutions with equal power?

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