The final two weeks of every legislative session are not that different from the NBA playoffs or the NCAA baseball regionals; it's when the game is played for keeps. It's crunch time. Everything up 'til now has just been a warm-up.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco limped into the home stretch with some of her key proposals hanging on by life support -- a fitting metaphor as applied to her controversial $1-a-pack cigarette tax. Blanco from the outset pushed the tax as a way to finance significant teacher pay raises, but consistently has fallen at least 10 votes short in the House of Representatives, where the bill started its long march toward passage. It remained stalled in the House late last week, prompting Blanco to shift gears. In a bid to pick up uncommitted votes and possibly to change a few "no" votes to "yes" votes, she opted to dedicate the tax to health care instead of teacher pay. When it's crunch time, you have to take risks.
Teachers have been a political football for governors since Huey and Earl Long. Edwin Edwards played them like a fiddle, using teachers to garner support for all sorts of taxes. The same has been true of health care. I remember EWE warning that kidney dialysis machines would be cut off if lawmakers didn't pass his $1 billion tax package in 1984. For the most part, it worked; legislators passed roughly three-fourths of his package.
But that was before the Republican Party became a real force in state politics. The GOP today has 37 seats in the House -- one more than needed to kill any tax in the body where all tax bills must originate. Moreover, the last few statewide elections have proved just how effectively Republican candidates can beat up Democratic opponents who support tax measures. Between the Internet (which makes opposition research a snap) and political action committees, there's no safe place for tax-and-spend populists to hide any more. That makes a governor's job tougher than ever.
Time was, a governor could always barter for tax votes by loading up the Capital Outlay Bill. Vote for my tax, and I'll move your district's pet projects up a notch or two. Vote against me, and you can forget about roads, bridges or community centers for at least a year.
Nowadays, even capital projects aren't tempting enough for some legislators.
To make matters worse for Blanco, she's trying to push a tax hike through a legislature that's just been told hundreds of millions of dollars are suddenly available in this fiscal year and next. The Revenue Estimating Conference, a more-or-less independent body that projects how much money the state will have to spend, met mid-session and "realized" more than $700 million between the current fiscal year (which ends in less than three weeks) and the one that starts July 1.
That took a lot of wind out of Blanco's tax sails.
Undaunted, she pressed for the cigarette tax. When it became clear that the $1-a-pack tax was a no-go, Blanco decided to dedicate the tax to health care. On the surface, the move doesn't make much sense. But, to lawmakers, there's a world of difference -- and it has nothing to do with priorities.
If a tax raises $182 million for teacher pay, that's all there is: $182 million. However, if a tax raises $182 million for health care, then it can fetch almost three times more in federal matches, which frees up hundreds of millions more from the general fund. And that money can be used to finance teacher pay and other needs.
Politically, that makes a lot of sense.
Until you try to seek higher office and you're up against a Republican opponent who has done his or her homework.
Blanco's allies in the House were expected to bring the cigarette tax up for a vote early this week. If they can't get the votes they need, there was talk of cutting the tax to 50 cents a pack. Even that would be a stretch in today's political world. To make matters even tougher for Blanco, most teachers will get a $500 raise even if the tax fails -- and healthcare would still be fully funded.
Crunch time is never pretty.