What we saw this week was a powerful lesson in raw democracy. No, not the Comey hearings, the event was the deadlock reached by the Louisiana Legislature over the next fiscal year’s budget.
The media is having a field day, “the legislature failed on all counts!” Actually nothing could be further from the truth. Because the legislature is the voice of the people it is acting in accordance with that voice. Through a twist of fate we have a governor who comes from a political philosophy that is remarkably different from that of the majority of citizens. His election, considered by most to have been more a rejection of the other candidate than anything else, did not mark as some would have us believe a reversion to the decades-old Louisiana political ideology that has resulted in our state being last in all measures of success.
Rather than the fluke that was the governor’s election, a far better measure of the thinking of the Louisiana people was revealed in the elections of our very conservative House of Representatives, our statewide elected officials, and in the overwhelming win by President Trump. So why the apparent failure of the legislative process? Well in fact I believe that the deadlock that was reached clearly demonstrates the success, not the failure, of our democratically elected republican form of state government.
Let me develop the scenario. This fiscal session had been built up in the media and by the governor as the ultimate tax reform event. For almost a year there had been two tax reform task forces, both dominated by the governor, that had created a relatively complex plan of tax overhaul; a plan that was viewed by the legislature as one that would make it very easy for the governor to push through major tax increases. This plan had been widely accepted by civic and business groups, who more than anything else just wanted simplicity and predictability in our tax code.
Incredibly, with but a few days before session began, the governor abandoned the task forces and his supporters by jettisoning the entire package of bills and putting his full weight behind a new form of tax that had not been discussed by the task forces, a gross receipts tax. No one, including his own administration, knew much if anything about this tax, and within weeks it was rejected by all parties. With that ground work the session started as the governor meekly attempted to fashion a tax package from the remnants of the task forces’ work. Needless to say the legislature seeing in this confusion nothing but tax increases on the horizon, killed it all.
Returning to the relations between the governor and the legislature, especially the House from which all tax and spending bills must start, we now have a deep ideological divide between an old-school populist governor and a legislature whose complexion is strongly fiscally conservative. Many in the media tend to support the governor’s liberal ways, with some reporters actually being nicknamed “the governor’s press corps.” So the message that the people get, a distortion in the worst circumstance, is one of legislative disorder, bad leadership, and general failure.
In fact there is dissension in the House; it is a body divided between a minority of Democrats, some moderate Republicans, and a slim majority of conservative Republicans. That slim majority controls the House and, through that majority, also the fate of most legislative instruments. But that is the way it is supposed to be. That is how our republican form of government works; majority rules!
The House’s posture on the budget was based upon 10 consecutive mid-term cuts, most in the hundreds of millions of dollars, brought on by failures to meet revenue expectations. Their belief, shared by many in the Senate, was that we should reduce our new fiscal year budget by about $200 million so that we would not have hit a selected few budget categories such as higher education with major cuts in the mid-term, giving them but a short time to implement the cuts. This is simple and good logic that was actually proposed by the governor when he suggested that we reserve 2% of future budgets for just these reasons, but just not this year! I could speculate that his logic was to saddle future governors with stricter budgeting as long as it doesn’t apply to him!
The Senate is far more prone to side with the governor and do his bidding. Leadership of the two financial committees is reserved to Democrats and they have comfortable committee majorities to support their positions. When the House sent across its proposed budget the Senate followed the governor’s wishes and refused to negotiate toward a compromise. Instead, very late in the last day, the Senate passed a resolution, without power of law, requesting that the departments of government reserve a pro rata share of $50 million in case of a shortfall. This was the so called “compromise” on spending that the Senate offered. The majority of fiscal conservatives in the House had already refused this offer earlier but the Senate persisted. So after several failed attempts to get the Senate to move the House gave up.
“Disaster, catastrophe, dysfunction!” screamed the headlines and the governor. Good political headlines but the legislative branch is working just as it is supposed to only reached gridlock due to external stress. Had there been no pressure from the governor the two houses should have and, I believe, would have negotiated a fair spending bill. The spending in this bill would have been based upon a reasonable expectation of revenue to Louisiana’s government, not the oft-proven misbelief that our revenue projections would pan out.
But the governor did use his political power by manipulating the Senate and so we ended up with that temporary gridlock. Nothing problematic, just the result of a system that is designed for legislative independence responding to outside pressure from the executive branch. Ultimately the compromise will be reached and all will be well.
But what political lessons are to be derived? Well, simply put, we have a majority of citizens in Louisiana who want fiscal responsibility and lower taxes; that imperative is not lost upon the elected, especially in the House. Despite the governor’s desire to revert to the tax and spend ways of the past, he will find steady resistance in the legislature, a body more reflective than he of citizen beliefs.
Irrespective of political noise from the governor and his allies in the media, this outcome has been a big win in the effort to change the future of our state. No more can a governor simply demand blind obedience to his desires and no more can he spend freely without serious backlash. It will take many years and many more legislative fights but clearly Louisiana has turned a corner on the road to effective government and there is no prospect that the ideology of our current governor will survive.