LaPolitics Newsmaker: Joel Robideaux

As someone who had no party affiliation until 2011, state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said he can easily find fault with both Democrats and Republicans. Maybe that’s why he seems to so easily find middle ground from which to negotiate on major issues like taxes and the budget.

First elected 10 years ago, Robideaux has used his mild-mannered politics to move up the leadership ladder, serving first as speaker pro tem before taking on his current assignment as Ways and Means chairman. The gavel grew heavy last year when Robideaux sponsored Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tax plan, which was rather unpopular inside the rails and eventually “parked” by the governor. But by responding quickly to his colleagues’ fears about Jindal’s tax plan, his reputation was strengthened.

Even though he was unsuccessful in his run for speaker in 2012, Robideaux has developed into a behind-the-scenes leader in the lower chamber. In climbing up the House power structure, Robideaux credits being a specialist in two areas most lawmakers know very little about: taxes and retirement. 

When he’s not in Baton Rouge, Robideaux makes his living as a certified public accountant. With an ever-expanding list of business clients from the Acadiana region, he hopes those relationships will soon help vault him into the next position he’s eyeing. In 2015, he plans to run for city-parish president of Lafayette.

LaPolitics: You’re term-limited out of the House in 2016. Would you consider ever coming back to the Capitol?

Robideaux: Membership of the House is a fluid process. Now that term-limits have kicked in, no one has the luxury of sitting back to absorb things, of learning as they go over a 20-year career. It’s now a part-time job with no health benefits, so if you’re going to go there and make a difference, from day one, you have to learn as much as possible. Then you go home. We have unique things going on in Lafayette. I think I can use a lot of what I’ve learned in Baton Rouge, and use the relationships I have there, to help continue the growth it has been experiencing, and provide something Lafayette needs: a good solid leader with an accounting background and knowledge of the political process. Success comes from relationships more than anything else. If you have the right relationships with your staff or your council, you can get anything you want to done. I think I can do that on the local level just as easily as I did in Baton Rouge.

What’s on the plate for Ways and Means next session?

Not much, if anything. The even-numbered years are slow because they are non-fiscal years. We were so busy last session, even more so than usual, because of the governor’s tax package. We met before session even started to try to get a grasp on that, which ultimately didn’t work out. When the governor parked his package he pretty much said tax issues are a non-starter for the rest of his term. The reality is that the governor has made it clear that any net tax increase is going to be vetoed. That’s a wet blanket over tax reform. We could go through the exercise of trying, but it’s not going to be signed into law without a corresponding offset. That makes it hard to work toward a tax structure that’s more fair, and I’m not getting any inclination from the membership that they want to take it up again.

Why did the tax plan not work?

Six months is not enough time to revamp the tax code. If someone is going to tackle that issue, they should start where this administration left off. It needs to be well thought out, debated, vetted, with public discussion. There needs to be a two to three year window to construct legislation, and even with that it may not get approval from the legislative body. But you’ll have a much better chance of addressing legitimate concerns. There were so many changes happening so fast toward the end, even folks that were supportive of the concept weren’t sure what the latest changes did for their support. A candidate (for governor) needs to put it in their platform and aim for the third year of the administration. Then everyone is on notice.

Can you put your finger on a couple things the House learned last session?

We learned it’s possible to have the House and Senate work together. If you look at the votes, it was nearly unanimous, and that’s not something that’s happened in the time I’ve been there. The House has learned more about the budget process than we’ve ever known. We have a grasp on the way the budget is to be crafted, and the mechanisms necessary to modify it.

It seems for every rule there is on writing the budget, there’s a way round that rule.

That was a part of the frustration of the Fiscal Hawks early on. These rules are in the constitution. Legislation last year really emphasized what the rules are supposed to be. All eyes are now on the Revenue Estimating Conference. The bill by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said they have to designate recurring from non-recurring funds. If the funds are going to be spent, they have to be recognized as one or the other. With a mandatory unanimous vote in the REC, things are going to get interesting. Typically the May meeting will give us the most accurate picture of the year finishing up. There’s also the bill by Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, to split discretionary and non-discretionary funding if there are cuts to higher education or health care.

Last year we saw the focus of budget negotiations shift from where the money goes to where the money is coming from. Is that trend likely to continue?

It’s hard to speculate on the budget process going forward because last year’s was such a unique convergence of people and ideas that decided ultimately to do the budget process in a new way, at least on the House side. Whether or not that’s going to continue remains to be seen. This year we won’t have midyear cuts, it looks like we’ll have a surplus, and we’re hearing from staff there will be a shortfall for next year. There’s the debate that’s going to come with the surplus money about where the money is coming from. Is it money we just should have had in the budget to begin with? Is it money we’re sweeping out? I think now, certainly more so than any other time that I’ve been there, we can have a pretty open and honest debate about the sources of revenue. Until we know what the May Revenue Estimating Conference is going to do, we don’t know what the debate will look like.

Why is the money from the tax amnesty program not one-time money?

That’s a debate I’m willing to have. Tax collection is an ebb and flow. It would be nice if every year we collected the amount of taxes we said we would. If we aim for 90 percent collection, budget for that much, and we hit 92 percent, we don’t say that extra two percent is non-recurring. We don’t collect taxes all at once. There are disputes over tax law that delay tax payments, for example. We count that as recurring. Just because it falls in an amnesty window does not make it non-recurring. If the debt is 10 years old, that’s clearly non-recurring. You’re not going to get that again. Some of it is very recent. To blanketly label it all as nonrecurring isn’t accurate. I know that complicates the formula for the economists. Some of it is just tax money that’s been delayed.

In light of the Division of Administration’s new $4 million consulting contract with an out-of-state company to find more places to save in the budget, what would you do to save money?

You have to spend money to make money. One of the bills brought by (Rep.) Chris Broadwater to established the Office of Debt Collections can really go a long way. The folks in the Legislative Fiscal Office told us it would be a great idea, that the state would certainly collect more money if we created that office. But there are some costs associated with it, the technology and the staffing. We have to spend a balance of uncollected debt that hovers around a $1 billion. Instead of the balance hovering around $1 billion, it could hover around half a billion. That’s $500 million more to work with every year—$500 million! Even if we got it down to $800 million. We did an amnesty in 2009, we collected something like $400 million. You would think that would mean there would be $600 million left. We were able to do it again this year because there was another $1.1 billion out there. There’s still a lot of money out there. Not to say that 100 percent of it is collectable, but we can certainly do a better job.

Would you describe your desk as neat, messy or in between?

It’s somewhere between neat and messy. My dad gave me this duck. A local artist made it. He gets pieces of cypress driftwood, so every piece is different. There’s also this finger-football set my sons would play with when they were younger. I got it from a client.