Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and the state House of Representatives are engaged in one of the most heated controversies they have had in recent years. And to no one’s surprise, it’s over money.
You could sense the bitterness in Jindal’s tone when he was asked Friday about a statement made by Speaker of the House Jim Tucker regarding the governor’s plan to sell state prisons. The up-front cash would be used to help fund health care.
Tucker, R-Terrytown, said “The votes are not there to sell the prisons, not in committee and not on the floor. I’ve conveyed that to the administration.”
Jindal said Tucker last Monday reported he had the votes to merge Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans. Days later, the merger proposal pushed by both men collapsed.
“Obviously, we’re not relying on him (Tucker) to count our votes,” the governor said. “We’ll make our case directly to the committee. We’ll make our case directly to the House floor.”
I heard Tucker on both occasions and believe he was firmly convinced he had the 70 votes needed for the House to approve the merger. In fact, he said he had a couple more than he needed.
Unfortunately for Tucker, the Legislative Black Caucus — that vigorously opposed the merger — did a good job of peeling away some of the speaker’s Democratic votes.
Conflicts between the House and governors aren’t new. It’s because of the role each plays in the budgeting process. However, the bitterness is out of hand this year.
Governors have to submit proposed budgets to the House in March for the next fiscal year. All money bills have to originate in the House, so its Appropriations Committee gets first crack at the spending plan.
The plan for fiscal year 2011-12 beginning July 1 left the committee last week, and that is when the fireworks began. The budget was approved after many hours of hearings that began long before the April 25 opening day of the current session.
The committee removed everything from Jindal’s budget that was based on money that wasn’t already in the pipeline. It also grabbed $82 million from an industry inducement fund to plug some holes.
As bad as that was for the Jindal forces, it got worse. The committee also cut $139 million more from state agencies to make up for some of that missing money.
Tucker and Rep. Jim Fannin, DJonesboro, defended the committee’s actions. Fannin is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a firm believer in sound budgeting. They said the state constitution requires them to pass a balanced budget with available money.
All hell broke loose when word of the committee’s actions got to Paul Rainwater, Jindal’s commissioner of administration, and agency heads.
“Again, what the House Appropriations Committee has done is cut for the sake of cutting, making unnecessary and arbitrary cuts, with no apparent curiosity as to the impact,” Rainwater said in a news release.
“… Unfortunately, what we’ve seen today is not an example of fiscal responsibility but an exercise in fiscal irresponsibility,” he said.
Those are strong words from someone who has to appear before that committee many times in the course of his job. One member of the committee said, the next time he goes back, “It won’t be pretty.”
Agency heads followed Rainwater’s example. The corrections chief said five prisons would have to be closed. The head of economic development, who lost that $82 million, said new industries and jobs would be lost.
The head of the veterans agency said 22 parish service offices would be closed and services to over 304,000 veterans would be curtailed. The health and hospitals chief said more than 200 employees would be laid off and health care services eliminated.
Tucker said those officials didn’t have enough time to digest the cuts before coming up with their doomsday scenarios. He said there is still plenty of time to work things out.
The full House begins debate on the budget bill Wednesday, and then it moves to the Senate. Members of the Senate Finance Committee will spend weeks fashioning their take on the budget.
Senators have always been big spenders, and they don’t worry about all of the details. Last year, the upper chamber actually rewrote the budget bill, and it included $400 million the House believed should have been cut.
We heard the same arguments from the House — not enough cuts and too much one-time money.
Fannin told House members at the time, “You need to be able to go back home and share with your (constituents) that this is certainly not what you had originally voted on or what you thought was best.”
The final House vote on the budget was 66-34, which is more negative votes than usual.
If history repeats itself, which it does often, this year’s budget debate appears headed for a similar conclusion. House members will be faced on the last days of the session with a budget they don’t like, but something they will be forced to swallow.
The Jindal team did overreact when it saw what the House Appropriations Committee had done. The dire predictions we heard weren’t produced from rational thinkers.
Louisiana taxpayers watching all of this legislative chaos expect coolers heads to prevail. They don’t want more of what they are getting out of Washington, D.C., where political accommodation is a lost art.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].