A lobbyist once told me that there are at least 54 ways to kill a bill in the Louisiana Legislature, and I have no doubt that he's correct. Gov. Kathleen Blanco would be well advised to keep that wisdom in mind as her tax plan moves through the Senate this week.
To her credit, the governor scored a big win last week when the House (with no votes to spare) approved a modified version of her bill to extend the tax on business utility bills. The "temporary" tax -- which has been on the books for nearly two decades -- expires every two years. Blanco wants to make it permanent. When it appeared she might not get the votes to do that, she did the next best thing and got it extended for five years.
It was a smart move on her part, and by all accounts she did a masterful job of working all factions of the House to secure the votes she needed.
But the battle is far from over. In fact, it's not even half over.
Everything goes back to square one in the Senate, except that the bill remains in its amended form. The Senate can do anything it wants to the bill, and therein lies the danger for Blanco. The bill's fate will present another test of her lobbying skills, and it will be the first major test for her handpicked Senate president, Don Hines.
If senators amend the bill further, it will have to go back to the House for concurrence. Because each chamber must approve taxes by a two-thirds vote, and because Blanco got exactly the 70 votes she needed in the House, there's a strong possibility that the House won't concur in any Senate changes. That would throw the bill into a conference committee, which could totally re-write the measure. Even if the bill were to emerge "clean" from conference, the effort to pass it would set up a "High Noon" showdown that Blanco would rather avoid.
Some lawmakers are philosophically opposed to all taxes. Many, however, simply use tax votes for leverage. Legislative critic (and former legislative attorney) C.B. Forgotston calls it "Let's Make A Deal." Governors need a two-thirds vote in each chamber to pass taxes; lawmakers want goodies to take back to their districts. Many beautiful friendships have begun over that simple equation, and it's why we have so many "temporary" taxes. It gives lawmakers a chance to make deals -- um, I mean friends -- with the governor every other year. Of course, many legislators also have lost re-election campaigns by voting for taxes too many times.
Back on the subject of Blanco's tax measures, she has some leverage of her own. In addition to being the governor, she also is holding two more bills that lawmakers are anxious to pass. One would phase out corporate franchise taxes on borrowed capital, and the other would phase out sales taxes on manufacturing machinery and equipment. Business interests are staunchly pushing both measures, and most legislators are eager to cast a vote to make Louisiana more business-friendly. Blanco wants that, too, but she's not going to get ahead of herself. No one, therefore, should expect the business tax breaks to leave the House before the Senate disposes of the utility tax extension.
It's not a pretty way to get things done, but nothing's really pretty about politics and government. It's a process. Sometimes things happen for very quirky reasons. At the end of the day, all you can do is ask whether any progress was made. The over-worked cliche about making sausage still applies: enjoy the way it tastes, but don't look too closely at how it gets made.