Filed Under:  Politics

La.’s Black Caucus is asserting itself at State Capitol

19th March 2018   ·   0 Comments

Despite little being written or said about it, perhaps the biggest elephant in the House and Senate chambers at the Louisiana State Capitol during the recent special session may have been the largely underestimated Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and not the pachyderms hailing from the Party of Lincoln.

As the state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, and his allies slugged it out with GOP lawmakers during the recent special session, many may not have noticed the critical role the LLBC has played and will continue to play as legislators seek to fill a gaping budget hole. Times-Picayune reported that both tax bills introduced during the special session failed in the House, essentially because Black Caucus members refused to vote for them.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a member of the Black Caucus, told WBOK radio recently that the LLBC has grown weary of Gov. Edwards’ efforts to get them to “go along to get along” with their colleagues on the other side of the political aisle.

“It’s clear from the last session that you are not going to be able to move significant revenue in any form without support from the Black Caucus,” state Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, a member of the LLBC, told recently. “I don’t believe the Black Caucus has seen that level of leverage in a very long time.”

Although the GOP controls both the House and the Senate, Republicans don’t have the super-majority needed to force through tax bills on a particular vote.

About one-third of the House’s 60 Republican lawmakers won’t vote in support of any tax bill, which means that any GOP-sponsored bills must find another 30 votes from the three Independents and 41 Democrats in the chamber.

Standing smack dab between the GOP and the passage of its legislation is the 25 — member Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, which is comprised entirely of Democratic lawmakers.

The LLBC has been saying for months that it would not support a sales tax increase, which places an unfair burden on Louisiana’s poor and working-class residents. Instead, its members recommended balancing the budget with income taxes or business levies.

LLBC members stuck to their guns and refused to support GOP sales tax legislation, demanding at one point that a vote on income-tax adjustment take place before a vote on the sales tax because they didn’t trust GOP lawmakers to stick to their word and bring a vote on the income tax adjustment once the sales tax bill successfully passed in the House.

“I don’t think that the House leadership took our position seriously,” LLBC member and state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, told “I think that they were just relying on the thought that as the time ran out, that we would just support the sales tax piece and not continue to push on a balanced approach.”

The House leadership’s lack of respect for the LLBC’s stated priorities may have resulted from previous instances in which the Black Caucus has voted in support of legislation which it had initially opposed, like the temporary sales tax it voted for in 2016 that expires in June.

“In the past, we probably have been the more pliable caucus,” state Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, who heads the Senate Democratic Caucus, told reported that Gov. Edwards had promised GOP lawmakers that he could deliver Black Caucus votes on tax bills, something he was clearly not able to do. Edwards also supported work requirements for Medicaid recipients, something the LLBC vehemently opposes.

In the end, Gov. Edwards tried unsuccessfully to persuade Black Caucus members to support the Democrat-sponsored income tax reduction bill that Republicans had added Medicaid work requirements to. Not a single one of the four Black Caucus members who had withheld their support because of the changes made to the bill by GOP lawmakers would budge on the note.

“The governor asked me to … reconsider my vote, and I could not,” Carter said.

“I think assumptions and promises were made without adequately discussing matters with the caucus,” he added. “They should ask us what we want. They should listen to what we want and not hear from someone else (about) our list of demands.”

At the start of the regular legislative session last Monday, Gov. Edwards spelled out his goals for the regular session and another special session to address the fiscal cliff that endangers funding for TOPS scholarships, health care and higher education, among other programs.

“Our constituents want us to do better,” Edwards told lawmakers. “That is why we should have fixed the fiscal cliff when I gave you the opportunity a couple of weeks ago. However, many of you have suggested that the fiscal cliff can be fixed simply by making cuts. I think what many of you will find is that it’s much harder than it seems because when you cut funding you cut services that many people in this state rely upon. But if that’s what you truly believe now is your opportunity.”

“From what I see, I don’t see a lot of flexibility for it to cut that much, and I’m concerned that what is above and beyond the bare necessities is not things that we generally will want to cut but where Appropriations and Senate Finance can find that room to reduce costs and find efficiencies. I am excited that they will find it,” Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, told FOX 8 News.

“I think anybody who thinks that we can cut $700 million out the budget and still function as a government isn’t being very realistic. I think it’s going to take a combination of cuts and revenue measures to get there, we can’t cripple the state, we can’t continue to cut health and hospitals and higher education, nor can afford to tax our working class people to death, either,” said Sen. Troy Carter.

“I think he’s laid out some serious problems we have in this state, number one being the budget that we need to address. We need to come to some agreement as to what the funding should be for this state and figure out a way to pay for it,” said Sen. President John Alario, R-Westwego.

“I hope that folks went home for the last seven days and got to get some feedback from their constituents. What I got back was that people were totally frustrated that we weren’t able to come here as a body and put people first, and that politics were driving many of the decisions,” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.

“There’s nothing different or wrong about us not coming to an agreement last time. It’s a process, it doesn’t end until June. We should never have had the pre-special session in the first place. It was a mistake. Now we can do it properly, we can get the Revenue Estimating Conference meeting down, find out how much money we have to really raise and then determine how much we really want to spend,” Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.

Edwards said higher education, including the popular TOPS scholarship and state-funded health care, would be the most vulnerable to deep cuts without new revenues. And he scolded lawmakers for ending a special session a week ago without resolving the looming budget crisis.

“Very soon we’re going to have another opportunity, our last opportunity to fix the fiscal cliff as we should have done in the special session. If the recent warning sign from one of our credit rating agencies is not enough to urge us to act, perhaps this story will be. I just heard of a young man that’s heading off to college next fall from Dutchtown, he had a 33 on the ACT, he’s an eagle scout, a model student right here in our state. After the last special session unfortunately, he is leaning towards going to Alabama rather than LSU because of the uncertainty of this TOPS scholarship,” the governor told lawmakers.

Some lawmakers applaud the governor for wanting to help small businesses, others said his proposal does not go far enough.

“I’m particularly excited about fighting for the small business council that he talked about creating. I’ll be working on that legislation, trying to find ways to enhance the opportunities for businesses, creating jobs, making money, and drive the state’s economy in a different direction,” said House Speaker Pro-Tempore Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

“That was a tiny little step. I think it’s a good talking point, but helping small business is extraordinarily important but that means tort reform, it means new infrastructure, it means reform of education systems, it doesn’t mean a minor little tweak to not regulating florists,” said Sen. Appel.

And many wonder if the legislature will embrace equal pay for women this year. Edwards has pushed for that and a higher minimum wage before but failed.

“They keep saying that it’s bad for business.,” state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said last week. “If you take a look at all these different studies, it’s actually good for business to promote paying men and women equally. Maybe this is the year, I’m certainly going to be fighting for it.”

This article originally published in the March 19, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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