(Photography by Brian Baiamonte: Julie Stokes)
The first time Rep. Julie Stokes gave a speech last year on the state’s current budget mess, her PowerPoint presentation numbered nearly 100 slides. So passionate was the second-term lawmaker on the topic of statutory dedications, tax credits and the need for fiscal reform, she just couldn’t stop.
Today, Stokes has shortened her stump speech to just 30 or so slides and honed the message she is delivering around the state to Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce and, most notably, members of the Committee of 100 of Louisiana—a prestigious business roundtable of the state’s top 100 CEOs.
The message is getting out and Stokes is turning heads in the process. While the all-male leaders of the state’s good government groups, think tanks, and university economics departments have all prepared white papers on the budget crisis, Stokes has done her own analysis based on painstaking research, and her straightforward, no-nonsense approach hits home with her audience.
“I have watched her speak to a room of 700 people and articulate a very complicated subject in a very simple way,” says Mike Olivier, CEO of the Committee of 100 of Louisiana. “She is definitely the most knowledgeable person in the Legislature.”
Stokes has made fiscal reform her personal crusade for no other reason, really, than because she believes it’s the right thing to do. She has earned the respect of Olivier and his colleagues on C100 and is now their warm-up act, opening the budget presentations they’ve been doing around the state as they try to gain support for true fiscal reform from the business community.
Stokes has always had a knack for numbers. She is a CPA by trade and a small business owner, who runs a career consulting firm, Stokes and Associates, with her husband, Larry.
She’s a mother of two, ages 11 and 13, and never aspired to hold public office. But she decided on a whim in late 2012 to run for the Legislature when her district seat became vacant, throwing her hat in the ring just three months before the March 2013 special election. She finished first in a field of four with 52% of the vote, avoiding a runoff.
Stokes immediately landed on the coveted Ways and Means committee, which deals with the revenue side of the budget. It was the year Gov. Bobby Jindal was proposing comprehensive tax reform for the state, and though his plan which was pretty much dead on arrival by the time the session began, Stokes was fascinated by the hearings and the discussions that emerged around the process.
“That just spawned a terrific interest in me about how do we get Louisiana tax code as clean, competitive and fair as we possibly can?” she says. “I really got passionate about wanting to see this broken system fixed.”
She immediately became active in the National Conference of State Legislators, serving on the group’s state and local tax task force, and quickly rose through the ranks. Today, she serves on the NCSL’s executive committee, which is the governing body of the conference.
She also has an active relationship with the Tax Foundation and the Council on State Taxation, having attended national events for both organizations, is vice chair of the Legislative Audit Advisory Committee and is chairperson of the Sales Tax Streamlining and Modernization Commission.
“Scott Drenchard of the Tax Foundation said in all his career he’s never seen a legislator do so much work in this arena,” she says.
Now as lawmakers prepare for a special session to consider potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases, Stokes is preparing spreadsheets that identify areas of spending in state government that have far exceeded the rate of inflation. She’s looking for places to cut, and gearing up for a few tough weeks that will be part politics, part number crunching and an attempt to spread the word to anyone who will listen that there are better ways to balance the budget than by merely raising revenue.
For her, it’s part of a larger issue—one that has to do with making Louisiana a better place for her two kids, Brandon and Taylor. That sounds really trite. But somehow when Stokes says it, you believe it.