In calling state lawmakers back into yet another special session just 30 minutes after the annual regular session adjourns this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards seems to have adopted the jocular admonition, "Beatings will continue until morale improves."
The beatings, in this case, are the painful choices legislators must make these days: raise taxes or cut critical (and popular) programs such as public hospitals and TOPS college scholarships. Edwards is determined to keep lawmakers in session until they improve the state's fiscal morale by raising taxes.
The governor has been accused of holding the beloved TOPS program hostage to get lawmakers to raise taxes, and that's a fair criticism. It's also an effective political strategy. Let's face it: nobody wants to raise taxes for better prisons. But if people think their kids are going to lose their shot at a TOPS scholarship — watch out.
Raising taxes is particularly difficult for Democrat Edwards, who must navigate Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. The House is the real battleground; it is larger, more partisan and more independent than the Upper Chamber, which tends to side with whoever is governor.
In recent weeks, as the regular session ground toward a typically fitful conclusion (lawmakers must adjourn by 6 p.m. Monday, June 6), Edwards appeared to gain some traction on the fiscal front. Earlier, the House had refused to go along with the Appropriations Committee's version of the budget, which funded TOPS at the expense of public hospitals. Instead, House members handed Appropriations Chairman (and frequent Edwards nemesis) Rep. Cameron Henry a public defeat by restoring much of the hospitals' funding.
The Senate put even more money into health care, slashing TOPS to less than half of full funding. It's not that senators don't support TOPS; they were just putting Edwards into a stronger negotiating position.
TOPS has been on the bubble since Edwards took office. He floated the notion that the scholarship program might not survive in its present form days before his first special session began on Feb. 14. That session ended in disappointment for the governor, when Henry and House conservatives bottled up some of Edwards' most ambitious revenue measures.
The governor appears to have learned his lesson. For the special session that begins this week, he is focusing on bills that reduce or eliminate tax breaks rather than raise tax rates. Reducing a tax exemption takes only a simple legislative majority to enact, not the two-thirds vote tax hikes require.
What about long-term fiscal reform? Apparently that's up next year. At some point, someone other than college professors must say the obvious: We need to go back to where we were in 2006 — before Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal convinced lawmakers to water down, then gut, the Stelly Plan. We also should clean up tax exemptions across the board and lower rates. A good rule of thumb is "simpler is better." Unfortunately, what's simple isn't necessarily easy.