John Bel Edwards at the halfway mark
John Bel Edwards is just about halfway done with his term as Louisiana’s newest governor. And his most significant accomplishment thus far may be that his job ratings look as strong as ever.
Edwards’ soft spot, meanwhile, remains as easy as ever to recognize—it’s the legislative process. To that end, Edwards outlined a familiar plan last week for addressing roughly $1 billion in temporary tax revenue that expires next year.
The governor also set a deadline (Jan. 19, 2018) for negotiations with Republicans, promising he would not call a post-Mardi Gras special session unless there’s a compromise by that date.
If a consensus proves to be impossible, lawmakers will have to convene a regular session to pass a carved-up budget that administration officials are already promising will be “terrible” and “a shocker.”
The governor has released a plan that relies on ideas, almost exclusively from last year’s tax and budget task force, we’ve heard before. (The exception is a plank to make permanent the recent reduction to tax credits.)
A sprinkling of representatives from business have offered encouraging words, although mostly from the Committee of 100, which hosted the luncheon where Edwards spoke about his session agenda.
Not in attendance at last week’s event were the dozens of other business representatives who took part in the governor’s roundtable meetings this year. Edwards’ supporters say that coalition is still in place and will be brought back together next year. But the announcement “was not the place for that.”
The announcement, however, did include what may be two of the most interesting words that the governor has uttered sequentially in any budget speech this year: “revenue neutral.”
Bobby Jindal was the last Louisiana governor to champion this fiscal philosophy, striving to have an equal offset for every $1 in tax revenue raised under his watch. Edwards, on the other hand, is using the term as a promise that he won’t ask for more revenue than what is needed to replace the temporary tax dollars coming off the books at the end of the fiscal year.
That’s going to be a tricky task for the administration. That number seems constantly in flux, and even when it’s not it’s at least in question by conservatives. If not handled properly, the “revenue neutral” promise could get a little messy for Team Edwards, if it doesn’t confuse the heck out of everyone first.
A few floors down at the Capitol, legislative leaders are struggling to cobble together 70 votes in the House; reaching that magic number to pass significant tax legislation is becoming extremely difficult due to divisions in the body.
Yet there does seem to be some hope for securing a simple 53-vote majority in the House for certain items, like limiting itemized deductions. Such an agreement, if reached, could be a solid starting point for legislative negotiators and the administration.
As for the state sales tax structure, which will be the policy sun to the Capitol’s solar system in 2018, administration officials say they’re looking at various policy models that remove exemptions and exclusions. Rep. Gene Reynolds, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, carried a bill to do just that last year.
That legislation, and others like it, included a fiscal summary that urged “caution” when considering revenue estimates. That means getting reliable fiscal summaries, not to mention bill drafts, prior to the start of any special session will be critical. Again.
(For the most part, lawmakers cannot raise revenue in even-numbered years, which is why the governor will have to call a special session if the Capitol class decides it wants to address 2018’s expiring tax dollars.)
As the latest session drama is unfolding, the governor is also reeling from a rather strong showing in a new poll conducted by Southern Media and Opinion Research. Edwards’ positive job rating jumped to a surprising 65% overall. The governor’s standing in the new survey was higher than those of U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy.
SMOR’s Bernie Pinsonat offered this analysis: “The historical trend since his election shows his job ratings are apparently affected by legislative sessions, with talk of taxes and budget deficits. Contentious legislative sessions in which Governor Edwards and Republican legislators clash over spending and revenue priorities obviously hurts Edwards’ job ratings.”
That must be an uncomfortable thought for JBE boosters heading into the 2018 sessions, which will undoubtedly be short on rainbows and lollipops.
When asked who they side with on reducing spending, Edwards (framed as against) or GOP legislators (framed as supportive), poll respondents gave both an equal 46%. It was a polarized spread when it came to party, though, leaving Pinsonat to opine, “(That’s why) Republicans, knowing their positions are very popular back home, continue to fight with Edwards over spending reductions.”
With just about two years down and two years to go, that leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the governor and this Legislature. But at least it means we’re halfway to somewhere. (Wherever that is.)