BEAM: Critics Overlook Power Balance

Critics could hardly wait for the legislative session to end before throwing brickbats. Comments from the Council for a Better Louisiana were the harshest of all.

“In describing the 2013 regular session of the Legislature, you almost have to say it was much ado about very little,” said the nonprofit, nonpartisan statewide organization.

However, after that opening salvo CABL admitted there was some progress.

The Public Affairs Research Council was more tempered in its evaluation, but it hit hard as well.

“Some problems were fixed, some were made worse and some were left to fester,” PAR said. “The net effect: Next year’s budget overall is about the same size as this year’s, but the state continues to obligate itself to greater fiscal costs and constraints in the future. This trend likely will lead to more revenue shortfalls, less budgeting flexibility, neglect of priority programs and increased pressure to raise taxes.”

The Times-Picayune said, “There were no sweeping reforms, no big ideas turned into policy, no legislative initiatives that will dramatically improve the lives of Louisianians.”

OK, so the face of Louisiana politics wasn’t changed much. But, in fairness, critics shouldn’t overlook the fact that a determined band of Republican conservatives called the fiscal hawks did what they had to do to demonstrate a long-overdue independence from the executive branch. The welcome change didn’t come easily.

No, they didn’t set the world on fire, but critics have to remember they were operating under the usual constraint — a powerful, unyielding governor. Gov. Bobby Jindal isn’t much different from his predecessors when it comes to using the tremendous powers inherent in the office. He just has a different agenda than most of our previous chief executives. Jindal’s desire for national prominence and recognition take precedence over some strictly state issues, and that influences his programs.

Former Gov. Mike Foster, whom I wasn’t sure at first would measure up to the job, left office with a number of accomplishments and a state in better shape than he found it. Foster is a wealthy man who “feels comfortable in his own skin.” He wasn’t politically ambitious or interested in rewarding his supporters. The governor told his commissioner of administration to just hire the best people he could find for state jobs and projects.

Jindal and Foster are friends, but they are opposites in a conspicuous way. Foster was criticized often for refusing to leave the state, but Jindal is a living example of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” It’s that desire to be constantly on the national stage.

One of the criticisms leveled at the Legislature was its failure to tackle tax reform, which everyone agrees is sorely needed. However, how do you accomplish that when the governor says everything has to be “revenue neutral” and he will veto anything that even closely resembles a tax increase?

Those kinds of constraints cramp your style and dull your initiative. How, for example, can you get rid of tax exemptions, rebates and tax credits that aren’t yielding dividends with that threat hanging over your head?

Louisiana’s state income tax is one of the lowest in the nation. But Jindal wanted to eliminate it with higher sales taxes because the elimination of income taxes is one of the major goals of the national conservative movement.

The governor’s tax reform program fizzled, and he and the business community later attacked plans drawn up by the fiscal hawks to create a more solid state budget.

Yes, they had to abandon those plans and rely on a tax amnesty program that critics say is too unreliable as a revenue source. They had no other alternative.

The hawks also formed a coalition with Democrats and members of the Legislative Black Caucus in order to achieve their budget reforms. It was the only way they could get the 70 votes (two-thirds) they needed to improve a gubernatorial budget built on one-time and contingency revenues that aren’t reliable.

The state Republican Party, a mouthpiece for Jindal, and some Republican legislators criticized the hawks for teaming up with Democrats to forge a compromise in which all sides had to give up something. Isn’t the failure to compromise the reason there are constant stalemates in Washington, D.C.? Democrats also represent people in this state, and they deserve a seat at the table.

Some legislators tried to reform the TOPS program, which pays tuition for college and university students. Jindal made it clear he would veto any bill that messed around with a program that is eating away at revenues needed in other areas of higher education.

Legislators were criticized back home for going along last year with Jindal’s education reform program, and there were efforts at this year’s session to reverse some of the changes. Jindal prevailed there, too, and those efforts were defeated.

Make no mistake. The governor is still in charge and will be until he leaves office. We may see some weakening of his powers, but he calls the shots, hands out the goodies and wields that powerful veto pen.

Our best hope for real change in this state came when a determined band of legislators demonstrated they can function as an equal partner in the democratic process and be effective. For that, the hawks and their allies deserve our gratitude. Some of the critics have conveniently overlooked the significance of what they accomplished.

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