Gov. John Bel Edwards has summoned state lawmakers into a fifth special session in just over two years to deal once more with Louisiana's structural deficit. The session runs Feb. 19 through March 7. Its focus is a roughly $1 billion fiscal "cliff" in the form of temporary taxes that expire June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Is there any reason to think the outcome this time will differ significantly from previous efforts?
Not really, though it's not because the stakes aren't high enough.
Lawmakers all know the problem: Louisiana has a recurring deficit because our tax system doesn't generate enough money to support state spending.
Republican lawmakers say we have a spending problem, yet they are chronically incapable of identifying specific cuts that will make it unnecessary to renew expiring taxes. In fact, every objective study — including those by business-oriented, conservative researchers — has concluded that Louisiana cannot cut its way out of this problem. That fact has not deterred GOP leaders from sticking to their narrative.
Democrat Edwards likewise has been unable to cobble together the two-thirds legislative majority needed to pass systemic tax reforms — or even to make modest headway toward permanently covering the deficit he inherited from predecessor Bobby Jindal. He has suggested several revenue measures and touted millions in cuts he has already made (Republicans say this claim is bogus), but negotiations remain at an impasse.
While it's the governor's job to propose solutions, lawmakers must actually enact them. The problem has been one of politics more than policy. A group of GOP leges in the House remains hellbent on denying Edwards anything resembling a victory, even if it means driving the state into a fiscal ditch.
For what it's worth, statewide surveys consistently show that the only thing voters like less than taxes are cuts to education and hospitals. (Those two sectors rank prominently among the "unprotected" parts of the state operating budget.) The same surveys likewise show voters giving the governor high marks, despite GOP efforts to torpedo Edwards at every turn.
The latest example is a poll taken Feb. 7-12 by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, which has polled often for Democrats in Louisiana and elsewhere. It's worth noting that even conservative polling outfits find results similar to those reported by Anzalone: 61 percent of Louisiana voters give Edwards a "positive" job rating and 57 percent credit him with "moving Louisiana in the right direction."
The Anzalone survey further shows that a large plurality of voters — 49 percent — trust the governor to handle the budget more than legislative Republicans (39 percent). Moreover, 58 percent of voters prefer raising taxes to cutting schools and hospitals.
Those numbers may bolster Edwards' confidence as he tries to negotiate a budget and tax deal with his legislative adversaries, but the numbers that really matter are "70" and "26." That's how many votes the governor will need on the floors of the House and Senate, respectively, to renew expiring taxes or to enact new ones.
The governor and GOP legislative leaders have been negotiating for weeks. We'll know soon enough if we're headed in the right direction — or back into the ditch.