SADOW: Jindal And His Allies Hold The Winning Budget Hand

If you’re Gov. Bobby Jindal and his legislative budgetary allies, you call the bluff.

In the annual exercise of poker being played with real money called the state’s budget, the three-player environment that has surfaced in the Louisiana House of Representatives this year includes Jindal and conservatives who almost exclusively are Republicans, a faction of Republicans and a few others who term themselves “fiscal hawks” who have supported creating a slightly smaller budget of a mixture of tax increases, spending cuts, tax credit reductions, bonus funds in the form of a tax amnesty, and changes to the budget process connected to this year’s product, and Democrats who want higher spending and taxes. The Jindal crew has picked up an important ally in the Senate Republican majority, giving them a firm grip on two of the three legs comprising the lawmaking tripod.

This weekend, the HB 1 version (older one here) that came back from the Senate challenged the strange bedfellow alliance of the “hawks” and Democrats, in different ways. For the former, it pumped in “one-time money,” a mixture of money that includes nonrecurring revenues from things like property sales and recurring dollars that do not originate from the general fund, and decoupled the several tepid and one obnoxious reforms of them from passing as part of this upcoming year’s budget. For the latter, it included items liberals had complained about lack of inclusion such as a public elementary and secondary educators pay raise although in a one-off form, more money to higher education, the small tax increase on merchants, and generally bigger government. For the former, it contests their public oaths about the budget and images as reformers they have tried to carve, while for the latter it entices them to come aboard by giving them stuff they publicly have stated they support.

At least for public consumption, this has discomfited both. Some Democrats are making brave noises about how the salary bonus, the biggest inducement, is not a “true” pay raise and they want more and a permanent commitment or else they’ll vote against the Senate plan. In fact, they tried to do this by getting that idea bolted onto HB 677 (old version here), the supplemental appropriations bill, only then to see the entire bill defeated. Some “hawks” are saying they can’t go for it as long as the changes they want to see in procedures exist only as the pilot programs the Senate converted them to and with one-time money present in it.

Neither are credible threats, especially the Democrats’. That was the purpose of the HB 677 amendment, to give Democrats an escape valve to say they voted for a permanent raise. They simply cannot be allowed to have it known that in the end they voted against giving teachers and colleges more money and grew government unless they couldn’t get more of all. And they know they can’t, with Jindal wielding veto power both full and line-item, and a Senate standing in the way including all of their colleagues (except the most partisan, ideologically-driven, race-baiting, and bitter one of them who, perhaps naturally enough, heads the state party). Further, they surely realize that the only reason they are getting more than nothing out of this year’s budget is because of the internecine split among Republicans as part of their learning curve on how to govern. So the HB 677 exercise provides proof, and now they can spew rhetoric about how they tried to get more but got what best they could.

As for the “hawks,” ego, if not political viability, for them hang in the balance, which will make them more bitterly hold out. Less than a month ago many seemed to verify they advocated hefty tax increases and slicing tax credits in exchange for letting surplus money pile up unused, with no effort to match appropriate revenue collection to necessity of spending. Instead, they have banked (or as one put it, “took some hard votes”) on creating an image that their marginal budget reform proposals, which in the aggregate actually cause bigger and less efficient government, solves all problems when these don’t even address the real root of the flawed fiscal structure. By fostering the illusion that they are saviors to address what ills the state’s fiscal policy, only that perception reinforced by successful execution of their agenda can distract from their recently-promulgated tax policy. That means hanging on, even going down in flames, because otherwise their credibility drops among constituents, the public, and the media precipitously.

The problem is, not enough are invested so personally and politically as to stop matters if Jindal’s allies play things right. Currently, $272 million in one-time money on recurring expenses pervades the budget, which according to a “hawk”-inspired House rule is about $84 million above needing a two-thirds vote to approve. But if the leadership can find away to rearrange funding or strip enough to have around $188 million only matched to recurring expenses, a simple majority of the seated membership will suffice and there will not be enough solidarity among Democrats and “hawks” to stop that.

And discussion of holding out for a special session as leverage is just so much whistling into the wind. After having their day jobs disrupted for two months and with their children out of school agitating with their spouses for a vacation, the last thing many want to do is head right back to the capitol where, because of the Senate’s proclivities and Jindal’s vetoes, they are unlikely eventually to get any better deal with the fiscal year looming. Jindal knows with little additional effort he can cast vetoes to shape things the way he wants and/or to force them back into session again and again, risking having no budget by the end of the fiscal year Jun. 30 and with the ability to blame them entirely. So, that just drags out their misery for no gain.

Thus, he’s got every incentive to call these bluffs. Especially shuffling one-time revenues around will allow Democrats to declare victory and the hawks to complain for another year about how they didn’t sell out their (ever-changing) principles and to continue propagating the legend of their purity and pristine natures. And then maybe we get to do it all over again next year, since none of the above is doing anything to solve the genuine problems now extant in the state’s fiscal system.

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