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|Constitution matters ... for now|
Louisiana's Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, did something astonishing that, hitherto, citizens of the Bayou State had only dreamed about: he followed the state's constitution.
Here is what happened.
Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Baton Rouge, proposed a tax increase based on rolling back part of the Stelly Tax repeal. Forget the notion of this bill not being a "real" tax increase. It was. What else would you call a bill that alters the tax codes from a 100 percent deduction to a 65 percent deduction almost four months after it was enacted? The senators who propped up this bill were in fairytale land to think otherwise. I did hear that these same cohorts also had a bill to make Sept. 19 Lugarue (that's the Cajun Werewolf) Day; it never made it past committee. Apparently there was a conflict with International Pirate Day.
Under Jackson's legislation, approximately $118 million in excess revenue would be created and dedicated to a "Higher Education Emergency Fund" to plug any holes in college budgets until 2012. This tax increase would have been retroactive to the beginning of the year when the repeal of Stelly took effect. Also, just because this fund was created and even funded does not guarantee that all future spending MUST focus on higher education. That would require a separate bill.
Following significant lobbying from Louisiana's grossly underfunded higher education system, Jackson did offer what seemed a viable way out. Senate Bill 335 made it through committee and went to the Senate floor. During this entire period, Gov. Jindal said he would veto any new tax increase.
Before we go any further, let's remember that Louisiana's colleges and universities remain woefully underfunded and it's a disgrace higher education should have to lobby in the first place. We should have a better system in place that valued education, but we don't. There is a reason we continue to lose our best and brightest.
But back to the story…
Once Senate Bill 335 passed the Senate with bi-partisan support (29 in favor, 9 against and 1 abstention), a collective rejoicing in the hallowed halls of academia began. Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-New Orleans, issued the following statement: "I am proud that an overwhelming majority of the Senate put aside partisan differences and came together in support of limiting budget cuts to higher education, the key to our state's future economic development and the improvement of our children, our families and our communities."
Now, on to the House!
Uh…wait…hold on…something happened on the way to fiscal stability. A crazy little thing called the State Constitution got in the way.
In Article III, Section 16 subsection B, the Constitution states: "All bills for raising revenue or appropriating money shall originate in the House of Representatives…"
That means Senate Bill 335 should never have been considered, debated or voted upon. It was a patent violation of the Constitution. Clear and simple.
So this begs some strange questions. Were the 29 Senators who voted for this bill unaware of this "tiny" little provision (this is satire) in the Constitution? Or, worse, maybe they knew it and rolled ahead anyway just knowing full well that it would hit a snag in the House? Can I get even more cynical? How about a witness? Perhaps, these senators did this HOPING that someone else would play the bad guy so that they could breathlessly tell their constituents, "Hey! I did everything I could for higher-ed. But that mean ole' Jim Tucker (Speaker of the House of Representatives) wanted to enforce the Constitution!"
In arguably the laugh of the week, one major state newspaper called Tucker's move a "procedural rule to side track a Senate-backed proposal." Well excuse me! I am sorry that the Constitution is seen by some as a mere procedure, perhaps even a nuisance. This is the same kind of thinking that would change the 10 Commandments to the 10 Suggestions (and only if convenient).
There is a reason we have a Constitution and until we change it, I have to applaud Tucker for having enough chutzpah to enforce it.
From a purely Machiavellian perspective, this could give Tucker (term limited) some more ammunition to challenge Sen. John Alario, D-Westwego, in 2011. But then, Alario was one of the nine senators to oppose Senate Bill 335 on the floor. Take note Tucker, maybe Alario was already aware of what was going to happen. You'll have to do more than enforce the Constitution and support legislative pay raises to become a state senator.
So what is next for higher education and the larger budget mêlée?
I guess sin taxes will save the day. After all, doesn't everyone these days hate smokers? Or maybe, we should actually have a serious public debate on the way in which we fund projects in the first place instead of playing these foolish political games.
Nah! Politics is a spectator sport in Louisiana. We would never dream of holding politicians accountable for deliberately violating the Constitution or playing games with higher education, health care or roads.
Think about this: despite the so-called 'brain drain' no Louisiana politicians have left the state.
What does that tell you?
John W. Sutherlin, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. He also is co-director at the ULM Social Science Research Lab. He can be reached by e-mailing Sutherlin@ulm.edu.