The regular session of the Louisiana Legislature is drawing to a close, and it’s a perfect example of history repeating itself year after year. The governor comes up with a proposed budget in February, the House cuts and rewrites the spending plan and the Senate puts it back together again at the last minute.
What happens throughout the process is a game we might call “Rewards and Punishments.” Louisiana has one of the most powerful governors in the country because he controls the purse strings. Play ball with the governor and you reap rewards. Oppose him and you can be punished.
This isn’t a new game. It has been passed along by two of the most effective chief executives in the state’s history — Huey P. Long and Edwin W. Edwards. However, Gov. Bobby Jindal is quickly becoming their equal.
The game begins after each gubernatorial election. Legislators are supposed to be an equal branch of government, but it’s a myth. The new governor picks the speaker of the House and the Senate president. He also has a strong voice in who serves on which committees. That is where the future of legislation is decided. Get your bill out of committee, and its survival chances are enhanced.
Committee chairmanships come with a staff and prestige. Vice chairmen also enjoy a slightly higher profile than other legislators. They all get the word early in the session that they are now part of the governor’s team and need to cooperate to see that the laws he wants get passed and those he dislikes are killed.
Members of the money committees enjoy special privileges. They always get financial goodies for their districts, usually on the day the major spending plans leave their committees. Those plans are contained in House Bill 1, the state budget, and HB 2, the capital construction measure.
Edwards fine-tuned the practice of handing out special favors when, in 1984, he offered members of the Legislative Black Caucus $7 million to spend on their own social programs if they would support higher taxes. Those were called slush funds, but the name has been embellished to make them sound more acceptable. They came to be known as urban and rural funds, then pet projects and, finally, member amendments.
Jindal has eliminated some funds, but cooperative legislators can still receive millions in handouts. When most of them were cut out of HB 1, they ended up in HB 2. It’s another one of those deceptive tactics used in the rewards game.
Reps. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, and Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, were in the race to become speaker, but they weren’t the governor’s choice. They were rewarded when they pulled out by becoming chairmen, respectively, of the House Appropriations Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, became this session’s first publicized victim. He lost his position as vice chairman of the House Insurance Committee when he voted against a tuition bill Jindal wanted, even though it was approved. Other chairmen and vice chairmen quickly got the message. They didn’t necessarily follow the governor’s wishes on every vote, but in most cases those votes didn’t affect the outcome the governor wanted. So they were forgiven for straying occasionally.
No one is immune from punishment. Ask state Treasurer John Kennedy. Critics call him a headlinegrabber with little substance, but the voters think he’s right on target when it comes to reckless spending.
Kennedy has been saying the state needs to cut state employees and reduce millions of dollars in questionable state contracts. Both ideas were unanimously rejected by the Senate Finance Committee as being unrealistic. However, that wasn’t enough payback. A day earlier the committee — without discussion — cut a halfmillion dollars and four positions from the budget of the treasurer’s office.
Now, back to the state budget.
No one was really surprised Monday when the Senate Finance Committee beefed up the budget for fiscal 2012-13 with $350 million in additional spending. The money appears almost out of nowhere, as it does every year.
Agency heads appointed by Jindal made doomsday forecasts about what would happen if the money wasn’t restored. They talked about cutting programs that affected the most vulnerable citizens in this state. It was no surprise when those people descended on the state Capitol in protest.
Cooperative legislators always get rewards in the two money bills. The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, for example, approved a capital construction bill containing $100 million more in projects than there is money to spend in the year beginning July 1.
And guess who gets to decide which projects get funding? None other than Gov. Jindal. He also has line-item veto power over the state budget and can penalize legislators who fail to toe the line.
The governor is like the gambler who puts money down on every square of the dice table. He can’t lose. Jindal hedged his bets when he supported most legislators who won reelection. Voters were won over when he preached his reform message for four years in every nook and cranny of this state.
Legislators approved Jindal’s education reform program that has already brought him national recognition, even though the changes are untested and untried. They will probably go along with his retirement changes that really don’t do much after numerous rewrites.
It’s appearance, not always substance, that really counts when you play this political game called “Rewards and Punishments.”
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].