BEAM: House Changes State Political Scene

The state House of Representatives made legislative history last week by writing a budget to its liking. It was a rare streak of legislative independence, and that is what the nitpicking, perennial critics have overlooked.

Since the days of Huey P. Long, the legislative branch has been pretty much a rubber stamp for the governor. The House has rebelled occasionally, but the Senate is always willing to put the governor’s budget pieces back together again. Gov. Bobby Jindal didn’t like onetime money when be ran for governor, but he has probably used more of it than his predecessors. Those are funds that you can’t count on from one year to the next.

Jindal has even added a new touch. If he can’t find the revenues he needs, he sells something the state owns or comes up with programs he believes will make money, even though some of them are iffy propositions that may never materialize.

When the cash doesn’t come rolling in, you have to start cutting government programs. And first up for the meat cleaver are always higher education and health care, two of the most important programs a state administers.

Neither area of the budget is protected, and it appears that is the way the governor and others like it. You can’t come up with a better excuse when someone doesn’t like what you are doing than to say higher education and health care will suffer.

During this recent session, for example, Jindal’s team consistently said any tampering with the governor’s proposed budget would mean 19 percent to 22 percent cuts to higher education and health care.

No legislator in his right mind wants to see those popular programs under the gun, so they usually fall in line with the governor.

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, has been concerned about Jindal’s annual use of one-time and contingency funding for years now. Like his colleagues, he has seen midyear budget cuts to higher education and health care for the five years Jindal has been governor.

The first major move Geymann made to fix the problem was to get his colleagues to agree to a new House rule saying any budget with one-time and contingency money required a two-thirds vote, a tough hill to climb.

It has come to be known as the Geymann rule, and it works when properly applied. However, the governor can get lawmakers favorable to his cause to take that money out and send the bill to the Senate where the money is restored.

Geymann started beating the bushes for new recruits to the budget reform cause. He even decided to enlist Democrats because he needed them to get a two-thirds vote (70) on money legislation.

Success didn’t come overnight, but this year shaped up to be the big test. As expected, Jindal used some $500 million in one-time money in his proposed budget.

Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, got his group to take out Jindal’s one-time money with plans to send it to the Senate for repair.

The Republican-Democratic coalition in the House rejected the idea, but with just one vote to spare. They wanted to construct a budget with their own ideas, which is the top responsibility of the House.

Political observers wondered whether they could muster the 70 votes they needed on five tax bills in their budget package. It would be the ultimate test to determine whether the House would resume its rightful place as the father of the budget. No one could remember the last time it ever happened.

Not only did they pull it off, they rolled up big numbers — 99-0, 87-8, 86-11, 81-17 and 81-14. They blew the lid off, and had every reason to be proud of their rare accomplishment.

Then along came the naysayers. Still too much one-time money, some said. Others said there were too many tax increases. A third group claimed the reformers were going to kill economic growth. Even the use of Democratic votes came under fire.

Don’t you just love hindsight? It’s so easy to be critical if you aren’t doing anything that’s history-making yourself.

Maybe there will be another midyear budget cut if the reformers’ budget stays intact. But, then again, maybe there won’t be.

That isn’t the important issue at this moment. The fact a super majority in the House told the governor his budget wasn’t good enough is a monumental show of independence.

The reformers have every reason to be proud. And their Republican critics shouldn’t forget that Democrats represent Louisiana people, too.

Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, summed up the day well.

“We now have a budget plan, because every member of this House had a voice, and each of those voices spoke clearly for the people they represent,” Kleckley said. “As speaker, I commend each and every one of our members and the work they’ve done.”

Fannin, who was opposed to drastic budget changes, was gracious at the end.

“People ask me how can you keep smiling through this process. I do that because I understand what a process is … Democracy truly works,” he told the Advocate.

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