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Vetoing the Cigarette Tax 

Jeremy Alford on how Gov. Bobby Jindal brought rebellious legislators to heel after they approved the renewal of a 4-cent-a-pack tax on smokes.

"That's just stupid." — Assessment offered by the mother of Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, when he told her the House wouldn't have the votes to override a gubernatorial veto of a cigarette tax renewal.

When something happens "Inside The Rails," meaning those tiny, intricately carved borders that keep lobbyists and others off the floors of the House and Senate, it's usually a reference to an event or occurrence that impacts or is known to lawmakers only. It's juicy fodder for hacks and flacks but typically doesn't mean much to the general public.

  That's how the Legislature's recent streak of independence measures up. It's "inside the rails" and likely doesn't resonate with your mom, your neighbor or the postman.

  Gov. Bobby Jindal saw to that Tuesday, June 14, when he vetoed a bill to extend a 4-cents-a-pack cigarette tax. Lawmakers whooped and hollered about getting it to Jindal's desk, but he had the final say. With the stroke of his oft-used veto pen, he sent the measure back to lawmakers. Two days later, House members failed to override the governor's veto. Their effort came up a dozen votes shy of the 70 needed.

  How did Jindal bring lawmakers to heel, especially since House Bill 1, the state's annual budget bill, is devoid of any funds that normally would be used for, um, reasoning with recalcitrant legislators? It's no secret that this year things are different for Jindal; without the governor's customary ability to veto earmarks and advance local projects, his hand is not as strong as usual.

  For generations, governors have offered up such enticements when looking for votes on difficult issues, and the absence of extra cash in HB1 this year has been blamed for some of Jindal's political setbacks since lawmakers convened in late April. (Examples: merging UNO and SUNO; selling off three state prisons; deep budget cuts in areas Jindal wanted to protect; tuition increases rejected by the House; and so on.)

  Then there's House Bill 2, the state's annual construction budget — home of prime Louisiana pork. It, too, is very much in play as the session winds to a close this Thursday (June 23). Known as the capital outlay bill, HB2 includes projects in every corner of the state, but it isn't finalized until the fall — by the commissioner of administration and the state Bond Commission — regardless of how lawmakers write the bill.

  One state senator who requested anonymity (but asked that the interview take place within earshot of administration staffers), said the capital outlay bill has been "dangled over our heads like meat" by Team Jindal for every major floor vote in recent weeks. "That's all you hear people talking about," the senator said. "We're being threatened with these projects."

  A high-ranking House staffer added that the administration in many cases is telling lawmakers their priorities could be changed if they don't toe the line. Projects in HB2 are prioritized in five distinct strata. Those in Priority 1 are holdovers that automatically get funded in the coming fiscal year, while those in Priority 2 are next in line, but funding depends on the administration and Bond Commission. Those farther down the line are essentially on the waiting list. And the wait is often long.

  While many lawmakers are proud of the battles they won this session, Jindal, with his veto pen, prevailed in the end.

  These are interesting times at the State Capitol. House members who are term-limited are saying their goodbyes, even though quite a few hope to move over to the Senate, where other outgoing pols are bidding adieu.

  In his farewell speech, Rep. Richard "Rick" Gallot, D-Ruston, suggested that thumbing one's nose at power is sometimes required, if only to keep things lively. "If you're good, you get called to the Governor's Mansion to eat cookies, maybe get a company man T-shirt," he said sarcastically.

  Last week, after several lawmakers switched their votes to protect Jindal's veto, some got cookies while others waited for crumbs.

  Meanwhile, Jindal's veto means $12 million a year less for health care programs — and those who bucked Jindal will see their local projects grow moss.

  Gallot offered some wisdom for that latter group as well. "What goes around comes around," he said, "sometimes quicker than you think."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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