Three Independents in Baton Rouge deal with session antics in their own ways
By Natalie Anderson
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — When Republicans and Democrats scurried off to their caucus rooms Friday to plot strategy on a controversial tax bill, two legislators stayed at their desks on the House floor, waiting patiently for the action to start again.
The lawmakers — Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard of Thibodeaux and Rep. Terry Brown of Colfax — are two of the three Independents in the 105-member House, and they are used to being the lonely guys when big fights break out.
Richard said he is sometimes invited behind the scenes with either party. And when he is trying to drum up support for a bill of his own, he has to work twice as hard as other legislators.
“As an Independent, I’m not toned down,” he said. “Nobody says, ‘Don’t bring that bill.’ But I have to approach both caucuses if I want their support.”
Brown said he does listen in behind the scenes, though it is sometimes a struggle to be included. Rep. Joseph Marino of Gretna, the third Independent, agreed that inclusion comes and goes, though he said he is more often invited to meet with the Democrats than the Republicans.
Given that they prize their independence, it is not surprising perhaps that the three split their votes on the most contentious bill Friday — a Democratic proposal to limit itemized tax deductions to raise revenue to help deal with a looming $1 billion budget shortfall.
Marino and Brown voted yes, while Richard voted no. The bill failed 51-50, and is likely to come up again Sunday as Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Republican leaders continue to search for a broader compromise.
Marino said Saturday that voting for the bill was necessary to raise revenue. He said he thinks someone will attempt to remove the amendment that ties the bills together, and he will support that, as it will get the bill into a position to pick up the necessary votes. He said he hopes the House will have something done by Sunday to give the Senate time before the special session ends on Wednesday.
After House Republicans and Democrats left the chamber to caucus Friday, Marino said he went for a walk around the lakes and did not care about meeting with other members.
Richard, who stayed in the chamber, said it was obvious he did not miss much since the House adjourned right after the caucuses.
All three of the men have been Independents for years, bucking one of the biggest trends in politics — the growing partisan divide that is also polarizing Congress and many voters.
Richard, 62, started out as a Democrat, as most Louisianans did when he was young, and registered as an Independent well before he was elected in 2007. His beliefs did not align with national Democrats, and he was not sure the Republican party was right for him.
“Being independent allows me to follow what I think is the right thing to do without concern about whether or not I’m following with party lines,” Richard said.
Brown, 71, was a registered Republican and changed to Independent about nine years ago after witnessing party politics being played at the national level.
Fairly new to the House, Marino, 51, was elected in 2016 without opposition. He said he became an Independent in 1999 as a young lawyer. He aspired to be a judge and felt judges should be neutral. Since then, he has never felt the need to change his affiliation, he said, because he is not interested in labels.
The Independents acknowledge that they can lack financial support. Brown said he funded nearly all of his first campaign himself and a little more than half the second time.
But they like that they do not have an obligation to either party to vote or create legislation in any certain way.
Richard has managed to gain seats on three of the most important committees: Health and Welfare, Appropriations and the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. He agrees with the Republicans that the state has a spending problem. He has filed bills in the past to cut spending, control state contracts and eliminate the line veto in the budget, all to no avail.
Richard said he voted Friday against the bill to limit income-tax deductions because he does not think the state needs to raise anyone’s income taxes when the actual deficit might not be known until June.
He also voted Wednesday against a bill, sponsored by a Republican, that would collect sales tax on previously exempted items and extend one-fourth of an extra penny of sales tax that is set to expire on July 1.
Richard said he does not think the sales tax increase would be a permanent fix. Though he thinks something will get done before the end of the special session, he said he is willing to endure another special session in June if necessary.
He said he does not think “the sky is going to fall” if the Legislature waits. “We always give in or something happens at the last minute,” he said. “We’re going to find the money somewhere.”
Marino insists that something needs to be done now, even if long-term tax reform has to be discussed later. He was one of the yes votes on the bill to extend the quarter penny of sales tax because the House, he said, needs to move something to the Senate.
“Even right now, I’m voting for things I don’t necessarily like,” Marino said. “It’s not about whether I like it or not. It’s what I feel we have to do in order to get over this fiscal cliff.”
Brown initially supported the extension of the quarter cent of sales tax, but once special interest groups began asking to be exempted from the increase, he changed his mind and voted no.
“The only fair tax that anyone sees is a tax that doesn’t affect you — it affects someone else,” Brown said about all the dealmaking. “That’s the tax everyone likes.”
For years, Brown has advocated eliminating subsidies the state pays to Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans and the richest man in Louisiana and 17th richest in nation.
“We worry about somebody on Medicaid paying an $8 copay that is going to cause a bureaucracy to be created again to collect that money, but we’ll give the 17th richest man in the United States $101 million,” Brown said.
“We need to get partisan politics behind us,” he added, “and look toward what’s best for our people and the state of Louisiana.”