They Said It At The Capitol

This year’s session-palooza lumbered into view on Feb. 13 brimming with proof that love and politics don’t always mix so well.

“To your spouses and significant others who will spend yet another Valentine’s Day without you, I am sorry,” Gov. John Bel Edwards told lawmakers on the opening day of the first special session of 2017.

Representatives and senators had already been through a sausage grinder of sessions — three in all last year, each hosting controversial votes that foreshadowed the dark and loveless politics ahead.

“Arrows are being shot at me left and right,” Sen. Barrow Peacock said just prior to the governor’s February speech. “But they’re not from cupid.”

That first special session lasted roughly a week, with debates focusing on how much money should be pulled out of the state’s special savings account. Conservatives and the House leadership wanted a smaller number, while Democrats, the Senate leadership and the governor preferred a larger withdrawal.

That put politics behind the steering wheel on a few occasions. “The reason I wear cowboy boots is because it gets pretty deep around here,” Peacock noted as the inaugural session of 2017 wound down and the current fiscal year shortfall was corrected.

The rest of February and all of March provided lawmakers with a short break before the governor had to open up the regular session on April 10. It was also the anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Titanic, but Edwards didn’t mention that in his second speech; he already knew it was going to be difficult to keep his tax agenda afloat.

The most prominent topic of discussion on that front was the governor’s doomed commercial activity tax, or CAT tax. It generated countless puns.

“The CAT is a dog and that dog don’t hunt,” said Rep. Barry Ivey.

Fellow opponent Rep. Julie Stokes later added during one heated discussion, “I don’t want to get into a CAT fight.”

Rep. Blake Miguez, meanwhile, took aim at the acronym. “I thought CAT tax meant ‘Carry your Ass...ets to Texas,” he told Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson during a Ways and Means Committee meeting.

Before it died on the legislative vine, lawmakers and special interests were picking apart the CAT tax with zeal. When a lawmaker scanned the audience during another Ways and Means meeting, hoping Robinson could answer a question he had, the secretary offered this unconvincing reply: “She’s not here!”

Taxes in any shape or form were a tough sale in the House during the regular session, even though the governor and Senate wanted increases. In the end, no reformative tax bills were even passed. “There are only bits and pieces of bodies coming out of here,” Rep. Chris Broadwater said of the Ways and Means process.

Why? Rep. Kenny Havard knows why. “A good tax is one someone else pays and a bad one is one I pay,” he observed when lawmakers finally started hearing tax bills.

Not even a gas tax — meant to improve transportation infrastructure — could gain traction during the regular session. “In other parts of the world they drive on the left side of the road,” Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson told lawmakers during one of his testimonies. “In Louisiana we drive on what is left of the road.”

Of course there were other non-tax issues debated, which brought voters and citizens from across Louisiana to Baton Rouge. A few of those exchanges, between elected legislators and visitors to the process, were memorable.

Testifying before the House Education Committee on standards-based assessments, Walter Brown, a former Caddo Parish educator, offered up some real talk. “I do not believe those students in 10th grade all of sudden got dumber over the summer,” he said. “But it does happen. I’m not gonna lie.”

Edgar Cage of Together Louisiana did the same thing while addressing the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. “I’m so tired of hearing about the toolbox for economic development,” Cage said. “This tool in the toolbox… It’s a screwdriver. And guess who’s getting screwed?”

Even though negotiations over the state’s annual spending plan exploded toward the end of the regular session, some lawmakers learned to keep their cool . “I could call you a bad name but I been praying,” Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill told Rep. John Schroder during a round of questioning on the House floor.

The second special session of the year convened on June 8, just 30 minutes after the regular session adjourned without the state’s main budget bills being sent to the governor.

The mood inside the Capitol was strange at best. “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic and so am I,” Rep. Rob Shadoin said during those final days.

To be certain, no one from the Legislature wanted to go into another session — the sixth of this term so far. “Special sessions are getting expensive to absorb,” Senate President John Alario offered at one point. “We are going to have to lay off five Democrats.”

The second special session of 2017, of course, ended last week with lawmakers and the administration reaching a compromise on the main budget bills.

That’s also when Sen. Sharon Hewitt tried to explain the concept of LST, or Legislative Standard Time, while debating a bill. In doing so she likewise uttered the truest words spoken during this year’s session-palooza.

“Weeks feel like months,” she said of the pace of governing. “Months feel like years.”

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