At the close of the 2013 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature, some speculated that potentially a new day could be dawning in the state’s politics. That’s correct, but for absolutely the wrong reason cited.
The revolutionary aspect of it all supposedly is that the Legislature is willing, ready, and able to stand up for itself against the executive, who presumably uses his formal but more his informal powers of office to dominate policy-making. In this view, session results allegedly showed legislators could take charge and become the prime movers of policy.
Evidence of legislative leadership is said to be its ability to carve out a budget more to its liking, particularly of the House, than what the governor preferred. Elements of both parties in the House combined forces to drive the process, resisting even the Senate, which seemed to be closer to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s preferences. Meanwhile, Jindal himself abandoned his stated priority given before session commencement of tax reform to eliminate income taxation and appeared to do little or could do little to keep the budget shaped along his preferences.
But this viewpoint errs in two substantial ways, by failing to view the products of the entire session and to understand the underlying motivations behind the varying legislative factions. Properly analyzed, the events of the session show the paradigm being disrupted is not that of the governor proposing and the Legislature disposing, but that of governing by caudillo with the struggle to replace that with governing by ideas.
Consider the context: at the start of the year, Jindal had come off an impressive set of accomplishments. During the previous session, he had triggered by his leadership a fundamental transformation of education in the state in moving away from the government monopoly model of provision. And after the session, he directed the state to being more like other states by beginning the process of getting it out of the business of direct provision of health care. They added the most significant developments to a broader campaign of that challenges the notion that government isolated from meaningful competition knows best how to provide for these and other services.
That he then audaciously proposed an even more far-reaching policy option, abolition of the income tax, only to see it wither away, does not mean this demonstrated a sudden diminution of the power of the office, or of his as a politician. Few sports teams ever had so much expected of them and excelled like the University of Oklahoma’s 2013 softball squad, who were heavy favorites starting the season, maintained their top ranking in dominant fashion throughout the year, and then finished off in style with the national championship. Failure to meet high expectations doesn’t produce a duality where anything less than meeting them brands you as suddenly weak.
Indeed, Jindal accomplished much during the session in the way of defense. He defeated efforts to expand state health care provision in a way that was an inefficient use of state resources, to reverse privatization of state hospital operations that has continued almost to its conclusion while measures to slow such efforts to a halt were checked, and to prevent rollbacks of state education reforms including expansion of the scholarship vouchers and in providing realistic and valid evaluation of teachers. And all of this, some polling led to believe, by a governor who on many of these issues majorities opposed him and from a public that saw him more unfavorably than favorable.
To fixate only on the outcome of the budget battle, while an important issue every regular session, as an evaluation of power relations between branches, produces narrowness in analysis that tempts drawing mistaken conclusions. If the price to ensure consolidation of previous far-reaching items in a policy agenda to the point they never will be reversed is to drop an even more audacious item and to cede control over a budget that lasts one year and sets no precedents, Jindal made the right call.
The atypical legislative shaping of the budget does not portend any significant change in the balance of power between it and the executive. In this case, what it does show is the difficulty encountered by politicians wishing to governing as the state’s political culture changes.
Historically, Louisiana politics has been very personalistic in nature, meaning that political movements and factions have been based more on individuals than on ideas. In the state’s political culture, ideas never counted for much because it formed in a highly class-based, patrician vs. the mass public, cauldron from the colonial era on. This was replaced, with its beginnings in the latter 19th century but coming to full flower in the first third of the 20th century, with its opposite number of the worldview of populism, yet which was equally impoverished in its ability to accurately understand the human condition. Both posit an inherently divisive view of society that leaves little room for anything but the most oversimplified and distorted political ideas to take root.
Only in the last couple of decades in Louisiana among the political class has arisen a challenge to this long-standing environment, political conservatism the policy prescriptions of which are based upon ideas with a strong intellectual underpinning, not on the basis of who promises to get the most stuff for your particular interest and/or what Manichean tales you can spin to get yourself reelected. That culminated in the election of the first governor in the state’s history who truly believed government did not need to involve itself in the delivery of so many things, Jindal.
The agenda he represents challenges the entire Louisiana political environment in two ways. At the level of ideology, it contests liberalism’s faith that government is there first and foremost to redistribute resources on the basis of raw political fiat, instead of as an umpire to ensure the distribution of resources on the basis of contribution to society occurs fairly. At the level of culture, it subverts the notion that a political figure, or that a cabal of them, be central to redistribution of resources to favored groups as part of a coalition to wield electoral power, instead arguing that implementation of superior policy ideas will lead to a just distribution.
But that transformation has not trickled down to many state politicians, even those who call themselves conservatives and claim GOP affiliation. The politics of personalism, which promotes symbolism that is a cardboard cutout of reality, found full throated expression in the group of almost all Republicans called the “fiscal hawks.”
It was the “hawks” that stumped for a budget that contained no “one-time” money, or surplus dollars that come from recurring sources that get spent on purposes other than the reason for which they are collected because there are more collected than needed and also bucks from one-off events. While Jindal originally had $525 million worth in it, they negotiated that down to about $80 million in the budget’s final version.
The “hawks” declared this money was the root of all budget evil, because they claimed mid-year budget reductions occurred because of it, making its use a bad budget practice. In fact, the last several reductions certified by the Revenue Estimating Conference shows that it is results below forecasts in the revenue-raising items that go into the general fund – not in areas that get swept to be put into the general fund that get the ”one-time” appellation – that have caused the shortfalls.
The “hawks” also conflate “one-time” with “nonrecurring.” In fact, until this year’s budget, the vast majority of one-time money generated in funds sweeps over the past dozen years has been of the recurring variety, and even statute classifies most swept funds as recurring in nature.
Despite these facts, hawks cherish the symbol of one-time money as a blight needing ridding, even though this is just the symptom of the real disease, which is too many dollars dedicated with too little thought given to actual need and priority. Many dedications should be unshackled, eliminated, or modified to result in many more discretionary dollars flowing to the general fund to be annually assigned by the Legislature on the basis of need and priority.
But that would require political courage, necessary to buck special interests, to have to defend decisions made, and to forgo a comfortable excuse in claiming dedications as absolution for forcing choices to turn out a certain way. It’s just so much easier shout from the rooftops not to spend money declared tainted than it is to repair the process that made it tainted in their eyes in the first place – and then when that reduced spending of that money occurs, at least to a great degree, to assert progress when nothing of substance really has happened. Maybe so, but to claim falsely that at least they repelled the dragon (when they didn’t even engage it) sure sounds good when they run for reelection or for other offices.
Perhaps more tellingly, in exchange for reducing the use of what they defined as “one-time money” by 85 percent in this year’s budget, this is what the “hawks” tried to or did deliver:
- To compensate, they had inserted three times the amount of what their final claim of one-time money in the budget is in the form of a tax amnesty – which is nothing more than one-time money by another name.
- They also initially wanted over $300 million in tax increases, but backed down quickly over severe negative reaction, with eventually a small tax hike on businesses that collect sales taxes implemented as part of the budget.
- And, the budget they sent over to the Senate was almost $150 million higher than the one Jindal introduced, and what they approved to send to him with the Senate is higher still, more than the additional $155 million in excess of forecasts made available towards session end.
In other words, the “hawks” violated their own stricture and in the budget sent almost unanimously to Jindal grew government and the goodies it can cast to the unwashed, justifying this on the basis of their one-time money shibboleth that bore little semblance to the reality of the situation. This is classic populist politics in action, the triumph of symbolism and assertion over ideas rooted in principle and reality.
This is why the session went the way it did: the House GOP in particular was rent between the populist “hawks” and principled conservatives. Democrats, for whom populism is the close cousin of their liberalism, adroitly exploited the rift by allying with the GOP populists to get spending and tax increases they otherwise never could have. It reflected how legislative Republicans have been unable to counter the populism within the state’s political culture and thereby be able to govern as a majority party on the basis of ideological conservatism because too many of their party members are infected with it.
The session’s story is not one of the potentially changing balance of power between branches. It’s of legislative Republicans struggling to govern as a principled majority, trying to overcome the state’s political culture. Alternative explanations simplistically miss the point.