Stephanie Grace: After declaring independence, lawmakers must own whatever pain budget process inflicts

When it comes to the balance of power between Louisiana governors and the Legislature, lawmakers have long pined for a more independent role. And this year, they finally acted on the impulse.

The House, in dramatic fashion, ignored tradition and rejected Gov. John Bel Edwards’ choice for speaker, New Orleans Democrat Walt Leger. Instead, members of the chamber’s Republican majority rallied behind one of their own, state Rep. Taylor Barras, of New Iberia.

And for the first time, senators elected their president by secret ballot, an idea born out of a desire to not have their votes used as a basis for reward or punishment by any administration.

The election drew far less notice, given that state Sen. John Alario, who’d held the post during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s second term, was the only candidate. But the new procedures, established last year out of frustration with Jindal’s hold over the Legislature, still marked a significant break from the past.

This may turn out to be a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

Now that the reality of the state’s $750 million midyear budget shortfall is hitting, Edwards has issued a menu of options, one that necessarily zeros in on ideas that would create short-term cost savings and immediate new revenue. He suggested dipping into the state’s rainy day fund, tapping into the portion of this year’s BP settlement that’s not slated for coastal restoration and cutting at least 10 percent of dedicated funds that aren’t frozen in place by the state constitution.

And in a proposition that couldn’t possibly have come as a surprise, he floated the idea of adding 1 percent to the existing 4 percent state sales tax (the new tax rate wouldn’t apply to items already exempt from state sales tax such as groceries, utilities and prescription drugs). The change would bring in $216 million by June 30, when the current fiscal year ends, administration officials projected.

None of these options is something any politician would want to do, and Edwards said so explicitly.

“This is not the budget plan I wanted to bring in my second week in office, but these problems are bigger than our state has ever seen,” he said. “Raising taxes would not be my first, second or even third option when seeking to fill the state’s budget shortfall, but when the facts change, so do your options.”

The possible tax increase, in particular, set off audible groans across the state and at least some predictable defiance from hard-core corners of the loyal opposition. One conservative lawmaker, state Rep. Paul Hollis, of Covington, quickly issued a news release taking any tax increases off the table, and the Hayride blog claimed that a tax hike is actually something the new Democratic governor “wants” to do.

A more mature response came from House GOP leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria, who’d helped lead the fight to install a Republican as speaker.

He said he expects lawmakers to come up with their own proposals but commended the governor for offering up specific ideas as a starting point and painting a clear picture of the state’s dire situation, which must be a welcome break after years of Jindal’s shell games, limitations dictated by his presidential ambitions and efforts to flat-out sugarcoat the situation.

“It had a bit of meat on the bones that we could start chewing on,” he said. “There won’t be an increase in spending at all. We’re going to be looking at it from that angle.”

Still more tough choices lie ahead, with oil prices continuing to drop and a $1.9 billion hole projected for the next fiscal year.

Edwards has said repeatedly that he’s not wedded to any particular idea and that if critics don’t like what he proposes, they should bring him something more palatable.

By claiming their independence, lawmakers essentially have said they want to be full partners in the painful process and to share responsibility for its outcome. When it comes to the budget, I’m guessing Edwards doesn’t entirely mind.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.

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