Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, the leadership of the Louisiana House of Representatives has played childish political games as the state descends further into fiscal chaos. Evidence of this is overwhelming. Since Day One of Gov. John Bel Edwards' term, a handful of leading Republicans has blindly refused to consider reasonable revenue measures — yet they offer no real plan to cover the $2 billion deficit left by Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal. Some of those Republicans opposed Jindal's fiscal policies on solid philosophical grounds; now they oppose Edwards' fiscal cures simply because he's a Democrat. They are shameless.
Further evidence of their irresponsibility came last week. House Speaker Taylor Barras, a Republican from New Iberia, and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Neil Abramson, a Democrat from New Orleans who is in league with the GOP's "Gang of No," strained credulity in preventing a vote on the so-called Capital Outlay budget before the annual session adjourned. Both said the measure as approved by the Senate had unspecified "technical" defects, yet they did nothing with the bill for the final five days of the session. Abramson literally hid from his colleagues to avoid bringing up the bill for a vote. Then, one day after the regular session ended (on the first morning of the special session), Abramson's committee approved the measure in an hour — with millions more for projects in Abramson's district. He blamed committee staffers for that "technical" error.
The next day, Abramson cast the deciding vote to sidetrack one of Edwards' main initiatives — a bill that would effectively put state income taxes back where they were before Jindal and his minions gutted the so-called Stelly Plan in 2008. Every reputable review of Louisiana's tax code in recent years has recommended reinstituting the Stelly Plan. Every legislator knows that. Despite pleas for more revenue from college and university presidents — whose institutions have endured nearly $700 million in cuts in the past seven years — Abramson's committee (which has a 12-7 Republican majority) blithely rejected every major revenue increase except one on health maintenance organizations, or HMOs, which are likely to pass the tax hike on to their customers. That measure is expected to bring in $190 million of the overall $220 million approved by the House last week — a figure far short of the $600 million Edwards seeks to preserve higher education, the TOPS scholarship program, public hospitals and services for Louisiana's most severely handicapped citizens.
For all their posturing, those who oppose Edwards' plan offer nothing more than politics as usual. Their strategy is clear: torpedo the governor in the hope of defeating him in 2019. If state finances go to hell in the mean time, they don't care; they'll just follow Jindal's template and blame someone else.
We have news for them: Voters will remember who voted to continue Jindal's disastrous fiscal policies — because we and others will not stop reminding them who fiddled while Louisiana burned.