WEEKLY Special Report: Put Your Name On It

This story was originally published for Weekly subscribers on June 14, 2018. Wish you had read it then? Become a part of our elite community by subscribing today!

These days, a bill’s author is just as important as (or more important than) what’s actually in the bill. So we spoke with the authors of this term's leading tax bills — an interview process that took the LaPolitics team much longer than it would have just few years ago.

That’s because permanent floor leaders for fiscal policy issues are an endangered species, which has in turn given rise to a scattershot approach to authorship by both the administration and lawmakers.

Still, authorship brings with it a unique first-person perspective that few others share, from where the legislative process is failing us to the dangers of being pigeonholed by a single instrument.

Here are the stories of those who put their names on the line this term, with results that have been occasionally disastrous, sometimes successful and, in a few instances, regrettably unremarkable.

Harris: “Totally Against My Philosophy”

House GOP Chair Lance Harris carried HB 27, the main sales tax measure in the second special session of 2018. Overall, Harris said the experience was “uncomfortable.”

Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Harris responded to a hypothetical question posed by the LaPolitics team. It was hypothetical because it involves time travel.

If I were to walk up to Lance Harris three years ago and tell him that in 2018 you would be carrying the main sales tax bill, what your reaction be? “I would have said, ‘no way,’ because it’s totally against my philosophy to do it.”

Harris, one of the body’s most conservative lawmakers, said that he volunteered to carry the bill created by House leadership because he felt that he was most capable member to engineer a compromise on raising revenue. “Knowing that we had to strike compromise to ensure that the state’s critical needs were met, and the fact that this coupled with cuts, would keep us from spending more than the previous year, it was something that I was willing to do,” he said.

Harris said that over the course of guiding the bill through the legislative process, he felt that he faced the most opposition from members of the Democratic caucus, although he was eventually able to get enough of their votes to send it over to the Senate. However, when the measure was being heard before the Senate’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, Harris walked away very offended. “It was very shocking to me how they acted. The lack of decorum and professionalism along with changing the bill substantially.”

After leaving the upper chamber, the bill went to conference committee and eventually died on a vote in the House in the closing minutes of the session.

Morris: “It’s Not Pleasant”

Rep. Jay Morris carried HB 609 in the 2017 regular session. The bill was designed to renew the elimination of certain tax exemptions and died in a vote on the House floor.

Morris, one of the more conservative members of the House Republican Delegation, said the content of the bill was entirely his idea, not a concept pushed by the leadership. However, he said he viewed “more taxes and lifting exemptions as a last resort,” and pushed the measure to close what he saw as a major hole in the state budget.

When carrying a revenue bill through the legislative process, Morris said, “You get bombarded by special interests wanting their particular area cut out or exempted.” Despite his conservative credentials, Morris said members of his own party were the most resistant to the bill.

When reflecting on the overall experience of carrying revenue bill, Morris said, “It’s not pleasant.”

Dwight: “There Just Wasn’t Trust in the Body”

Rep. Stephen Dwight carried HB 23, the main sales tax bill of the first special session of 2018.

Dwight said the bill was not his idea, but rather a compromise measure brokered between the House leadership and the governor’s office. He also added that he volunteered to carry the bill.

“I’m on Ways and Means, and I felt like the author needed to come from the committee,” Dwight said. Before bringing the bill forward, Dwight said that he met with both the governor’s staff and GOP leaders to hammer out details.

Once the measure was brought before the House, Dwight said that he felt that the bill’s most staunch opposition was from the Democrats and members of the Black Caucus. “They felt like we weren't raising enough revenue to cover the shortfall,” Dwight said. “There just wasn’t trust in the body.” The bill failed on a 33-70 final passage vote in the House.

Reflecting on the experience as a whole, Dwight said, “I did it because I have McNeese in my district, I have a public-private partnership in my area and I saw what the cuts would mean to them. My bill was a quarter of a cent and cleaned some of the pennies. I felt like I needed to do that so those essential priorities were funded.”

Jones: “That Was My Idea”

Rep. Sam Jones carried HB 628 in the 2017 regular session, the bill containing the controversial Commercial Activities Tax. The measure revised the state’s business tax structure, removing exemptions and charging fees on commercial sales. It was backed heavily by Gov. John Bel Edwards, Jones’ former House seat-mate. However, Jones said that the concept itself was his, not something that originated in the governor’s office. “Actually, that was my idea,” Jones said. He also added that the plan had originated after he studied similar tax structures in Ohio and Texas.

According to Jones, he mentioned the CAT tax bill he planned to file in a conversation with the governor. Edwards, intrigued by the idea, had his staff look into the matter before signing up to support the plan. Once on board, the governor publicly touted the bill as the centerpiece of his legislative package for the session. “This was an effort to make the system more fair,” Jones said.  

The bill ran into stiff opposition from various groups around the Capitol. “People started taking a look at it and then the outside forces started coming in,” Jones said. The bill effectively died when it was voluntarily deferred by Jones in the House Ways and Means Committee in face of a nearly certain defeat.  

When reflecting on the experience as a whole, Jones said, “It’s another day at the office.”  

Jackson: “You Get Disappointed Sometimes”

After carrying not one but three high-stakes bills this past special session, Rep. Katrina Jackson is still getting used to the fiscal policy rollercoaster.

“You get disappointed sometimes,” Jackson said. “You have some highs and you have lows. But when you’re carrying bills like that, you experience all those emotions in a 24-hour period. Over and over and over again. It adds stress to you, but it relieves that stress that you originally come in session with and you’re originally trying to resolve.”

This past session, the administration reached out to the Monroe lawmaker to file bills that extended policies she had initially pushed on behalf of the Black Caucus under Gov. Bobby Jindal. “When you look at renewing those things, I think they just came to the original author of them,” Jackson said.

They were “haircut” bills: rebate reductions, reductions to corporate income tax deductions and individual income tax credits for taxes paid to other states. The rebate reduction bill, HB 19, failed on the House floor. The other two, HB 13 and HB 18, were enacted.

“I really don’t know if I’m going to file any legislation this special session,” Jackson said. “I haven’t made the decision yet.”

This story was originally published for Weekly subscribers on June 14, 2018. Wish you had read it then? Become a part of our elite community by subscribing today!

Landry: “An Emotional Impact”

In the last special session, Rep. Terry Landry carried HB 11, the revenue bill backed by Gov. Edwards. The measure added half a penny in sales tax and unceremoniously died in the Ways and Means committee.

“It was an administration bill that they asked me to author,” Landry, a first-time tax bill author, said. “It does have an emotional impact on you.”

While the governor backed bill’s along its short journey, HB 11 was doomed from the start. “I had some members tell me the bill wasn’t going to come up in committee,” said Landry. “I think the decision had already been made.

James: What’s Right and Wrong “Doesn’t Even Matter Anymore”

In the first 2018 special session, Rep. Ted James called Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson and volunteered to carry a bill for her department.

She gave him the concept that would eventually become HB 7: the reduction in income tax deductions for excess federal itemized personal deductions. It never reached the floor, having died in the Ways and Means Committee.

“An income tax bill is not one that a lot of people feel comfortable with carrying,” James said, adding that some lawmakers oppose policies pushed by the Fourth Floor “just because it’s the governor,” while other colleagues follow large lobbyists or associations “no matter what.”

“We deal with so many outside influences,” he said. “You’re going in with very few options. Just a simple ‘what’s right’ and ‘what’s wrong’ doesn’t even matter anymore.”

James said the administration worked closely with him until the lead bill died, providing him with everything from information to talking points. “A large part of it is being able to respond to the rhetoric and be able to get the accurate information out,” he said.

Cox: “It Becomes Like Your Kid”

In the first special session of 2016, Rep. Kenny Cox decided to file a package of bills related to the levy on alcoholic beverages, which, as he remembers it, “started out being super big.”

A part of the package was HB 27, an alcohol tax increase. The governor, who was thinking about pushing the same issue, contacted Cox after he filed it. “Once the bill came out and he (Gov. Edwards) supported it, he was on it the whole time.” It took multiple tries to pass the House, but was eventually signed into law.

“You can’t get to the point to where the bill breaks you,” Cox said. “You can become so attached to something that you put your heart and soul into it. It becomes like your kid. Whenever somebody does something to it, you get a little upset about it. Especially with these big bills when the whole state is riding on your back.”

Leger: The Last Man Standing

When the final minutes are ticking off the clock, Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger finds himself making the familiar trek from his seat in the third row of the House chamber to the podium in session after session. “I guess I feel like, at times, I have the responsibility to push the envelope,” he said, adding that it’s not premeditated and that he believes it “sets the table for future success.”

Long-term investments are a theme for Leger, who shouldered multiple large bills this past session alone, including an alternative to Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry’s budget package.

“Sometimes you file bills because you believe you can pass them,” said Leger. “Sometimes you file bills so there can be an instrument that can be utilized at some point in trying to address the challenges. I think that’s what you saw in my budget bill and I think that’s what you saw in my HB 12 as it got amended in the Senate.”

HB 12, which closed the last special session, proposed a renewed half a penny in sales taxes. It started out less controversial, dealing only with sales taxes on remote retailers. Leger didn’t expect it to eventually turn into a Senate-favored substitute to Republican Delegation Chair Lance Harris’ sales tax bill, the special session centerpiece that set the disputed rate at one-third of a penny.

This, plus filing the alternative to Henry’s budget package, created an especially challenging body once he got to defend his bills in committee and on the floor. Carrying big bills, Leger said, means taking tough questions. “They’re not designed necessarily to add construction to the conversation,” Leger said. “They’re trying to destroy something.”

Then there’s the outside players. “It’s hard to know where support and where opposition is coming from at any given moment,’ he said, adding that it’s an especially emotional issue for lawmakers. “I’ve been on Appropriations for 10 years now. I’ve been through dozens of these hearings that are highly emotional. The truth is, they don’t get less emotional the more that you’ve been through them. The same is true of the legislative session, particularly one involving taxes.”

The pro tem said he plans to file a copy of HB 12 in its latest version for this coming session. “Whether or not it ever comes to a vote, I don’t really know.”

This story was originally published for Weekly subscribers on June 14, 2018. Wish you had read it then? Become a part of our elite community by subscribing today!

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