N o one should have been surprised when the wheels came off the legislative sausage wagon last week. House and Senate members began holding each other's major bills hostage and inflicting massive collateral damage in a high-stakes test of wills over how to resolve the state's looming $1.6 billion deficit.
The House is rebelling against Gov. Bobby Jindal and his "revenue neutrality" pledge to Grover Norquist and the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, whose blessing Jindal craves in his quixotic bid for the White House. The Senate is mostly toeing the administration line, not so much out of loyalty to Jindal as a nod to political reality. Most lawmakers are months away from seeking re-election and don't want to run on a platform of raising taxes.
What got things off track last week was an admission by administration officials to the House Ways and Means Committee that they had been consulting Norquist's group before submitting proposals to lawmakers. That infuriated most committee members, who promptly scuttled the so-called SAVE Act by state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington. The SAVE Act is an administration bill designed to give cover to tax and fee hikes by creating the illusion of a tax credit that "offsets" the revenue increases. In truth it does no such thing, but as long as Norquist blesses it, Jindal is all in.
Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, voted with the slim 10-9 majority to kill the SAVE Act. The next day Robideaux told Bayou Buzz political blog that the SAVE Act is "a very clever bill that basically allows us to raise as much taxes as we want and still say we did not raise taxes." He called the proposal "an assessment that nobody pays because of a credit that nobody gets."
The House committee's action infuriated Donahue, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which promptly amended several of Robideaux's bills that were pending in the Senate so that each incorporated Donahue's SAVE Act. For good measure, another Senate committee gutted Robi-deaux's bill to reform and vastly improve the state film tax credit program.
In response, Robideaux amended his film tax credit bill onto a Senate bill that was pending in the House. Each maneuver upped the ante and increased tensions between the House and Senate. In normal times, the governor would have intervened — but that would require executive leadership. These are not normal times.
On this one I have to agree with Robideaux. The SAVE Act should more aptly be called the SAVE Face Act because all it does is allow Jindal to claim that he didn't raise taxes when, in truth, that's exactly what he's asking lawmakers to do.
As often happens when everybody starts shooting at everybody else, there's collateral damage. Robideaux's HB 829, which would focus the state's film tax credit program on Louisiana filmmakers, screenwriters and composers, is a classic example of what happens when people act out of anger and frustration. If lawmakers kill Robideaux's film tax credit bill, we keep the current program — which everybody agrees is out of control.
There's not much time left for cooler heads to prevail. The session ends Thursday, June 11. The final week will be grand political theater, but the story line reads like a tragic comedy.