By Paul Braun, Kaylee Poche and Devon Sanders, LSU Manship School News Service
Rep. Paula Davis, who was tapped Tuesday to be the public face of a new Republican compromise proposal, is a first-term legislator from Baton Rouge with a low profile and a mixed voting record on taxes. Davis’ plan would extend four-tenths of a penny of sales tax that is set to expire July 1, an amount that would be enough, she says, to fund critical services while shrinking the overall size of state government. Davis’ bill, which was co-authored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, would extend less than the half cent of sales tax that Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Senate have sought but more than the third of a cent that House Republican leaders endorsed earlier.
“I give credit to Paula Davis to try something that the others haven’t,” said Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, who also tried, but failed, to strike a bipartisan deal in the final minutes of the last special session. “The belief is that she can work across the aisle and hopefully get something done.” Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, shares a portion of his district with Davis, 44, and said she impressed him as a “quick study” since she took office in 2015. “She fits the mold of being able to disagree with people, continue to hold her principles and people still like her,” Claitor said. “She is also, in my experience, not one that interprets the word compromise as a cuss word.” Claitor, who is a co-author on Davis’ bill, said his support for the legislation was as much an endorsement of her “willingness to step forward into this conversation as it is the number that’s being promoted.”
Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, added that it “takes a lot of courage to run a bill, especially a revenue bill, so I commend her for doing that.” Davis is a former deputy state insurance commissioner who now sells commercial real-estate, and she sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, which will consider hers and other revenue bills on Wednesday. Several lawmakers in both parties said Barras’ role as a co-author makes clear that Davis’ proposal has the support of House Republican leaders, and Davis’ likability might help ease some of the tensions that have carried over from the previous two failed special sessions this year. Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, antagonized Democrats in both the House and the Senate earlier this month by insisting that House Republicans would never vote to extend more than a third of a cent of the sales tax. And some members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who favor keeping a half cent of the sales tax, could still vote against Davis’s plan and push for more money for services for low-income residents, potentially sinking a compromise.
Davis comes from a relatively moderate Republican district, which includes upper-middle-class neighborhoods stretching across the southeastern side of Baton Rouge. That could help insulate her from a backlash from conservative groups like the Louisiana chapter of Americans For Prosperity, an organization funded by oil billionaires Charles Koch and David Koch that is pushing nationally for lower taxes and smaller government. AFP’s Louisiana chapter has used its Twitter feed to praise the 20 or so Republican legislators who have voted consistently against extending any portion of the sales tax and to attack other Republicans, like Stokes, who have voted for any revenue-raising measures. The House Republican Delegation released a video Monday of Davis in which she echoed the sentiment of many Republicans that Edwards, a Democrat, presides over a government bureaucracy that is larger than the state can afford.
“It’s basic economics,” Davis said. “We simply cannot continue to grow the size of government while we have the slowest economy in America and while families and businesses are continuing to leave the state.” In the video, Davis also stressed the need for a compromise that puts “people over politics.” She said that in the last special session, Republicans “met the governor more than halfway” by proposing a bill to renew a third-cent of the sales tax. Her own voting record during the contentious special sessions over the last three years is more mixed. In 2016, she voted with most other lawmakers to add an extra penny to the state’s portion of the sales tax and limit some business exemptions for two years to give Edwards and the Legislature time to work out a more permanent solution. Edwards has said that the expiration of those measures on July 1 would create a $648 million budget shortfall.
Maintaining a half cent of that tax would cover $510 million of that amount, while extending four-tenths would raise $412 million and keeping a third of a cent would raise $365 million. The Legislature has already passed a budget bill that would slash TOPS scholarships and funding for higher education, prisons and the food stamps program if there is not enough money available. During this year’s first special session, Davis voted in favor of a quarter-cent sales tax renewal that was the Republican’s best compromise offer then. In a letter to her constituents, Davis expressed disappointment that the bill failed and likened the collapse of that session to the time when she and her husband realized that a squirrel had died in a wall in her first home. She wrote that “everyone has different opinions about how we got to this point and how to supposedly fix the problems, but we unanimously agree that it stinks.”
In that letter, Davis also justified her support for the quarter-cent proposal as needed to adequately fund higher education, TOPS and state hospitals.