This year already is shaping up to be just as challenging as last year for Gov. John Bel Edwards, and that's without floods and mass shootings. Instead, some of the governor's leading Republican adversaries will try to shoot down his fiscal reform efforts.
Our state constitution prohibits lawmakers from changing tax laws during regular legislative sessions in even-numbered years. That's why Edwards called two special sessions last year to deal with former Gov. Bobby Jindal's $2 billion deficit. (Remember: Jindal inherited a $1 billion surplus from Gov. Kathleen Blanco.)
Between a hodgepodge of temporary tax hikes and the expansion of Medicaid, Edwards and lawmakers raised about $1.7 billion last year. That still wasn't enough, even though they also cut several hundred million dollars in spending.
This year, Edwards and lawmakers have a chance to enact some real fiscal reform, but the odds are against it — mostly for political and ideological reasons.
For starters, Republicans control both the House and Senate, and Edwards is a Democrat. Many but not all GOP lawmakers seem perfectly willing to let the state go down in flames if it means handing Edwards a political "loss." In fairness, many other GOP lawmakers are willing to work with the governor to inject some sanity into the state's budget and tax process. That's especially true in the Senate. In the House, not so much — and all tax measures must begin in the House.
Also in fairness, even when the Legislature was less partisan, too many lawmakers were loath to enact fiscal reform. That sad fact reflects both the complexity of any state's tax code and the strength of entrenched special interests, from big business to big oil to local governments and many others.
To complicate matters further, passing tax legislation requires a two-thirds supermajority in both legislative chambers. That's always difficult.
The last governor to steer meaningful tax reform through the Legislature was Mike Foster, a Republican who faced Democratic legislative majorities. Times were different then. The Legislature back then was nowhere near as partisan as it is now, and Foster, a former state senator, proved himself a skilled policy maker. He helped pass the Stelly Plan — one of Louisiana's most significant tax reforms — in 2002. Sadly, that reform was undone under Govs. Blanco and Jindal.
Fast forward to today. A nonpartisan task force on budget and taxation issued a report in November calling for sweeping — and entirely familiar — reforms, but by most accounts it's dead on arrival in the House, thanks largely to GOP opposition.
So far, House Republican leaders have no alternate plan.
Hanging in the balance are Louisiana's public universities, hospitals and the popular TOPS scholarship plan, which collectively touch the lives of many thousands of Louisianans. Unless lawmakers reverse the tax cuts handed out willy-nilly by Team Jindal, those same entities — already gutted recently — will see more cuts.
Much like the reforms proposed by the task force, we've seen this storyline before. Edwards' challenge is to change how it ends.