Earlier today the Louisiana House of Representatives voted 61-37 to move HB 1, the state budget bill, to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk. The bill is the Senate version passed on Tuesday following a dramatic flare-up in the Senate’s Finance Committee last Friday; the Senate chose to fully fund the governor’s wish list for the Louisiana Department of Health but impose a rather draconian 24 percent cut on most state agencies, and when Edwards sent his Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne to the committee’s witness table to scold the members for having agreed to such a document he was met with a rather forceful blowback.
And with the House concurring with the Senate’s budget, one of the driest topics in Louisiana public policy all of a sudden becomes something out of a political thriller.
Politically, concurring with the Senate budget is a terrific move on the House’s part, even if from a policy standpoint the Senate’s budget isn’t the best plan. LDH should, as a matter of policy, take some sort of a budget cut; it’s a bloated agency administering a colossally wasteful Medicaid program which is rife with fraud and on a trajectory to bankrupt the state, and as a matter of government efficiency some of the runaway growth in LDH should be trimmed and plowed into those agencies – many of them certainly can and should take cuts, but perhaps not at 24 percent.
And that’s what would have happened had Edwards chosen to play a productive role in the state’s budget. That was most certainly not his choice, though; when the House sought to impose some efficiencies on LDH, Edwards rushed to the microphones to demagogue the budget by threatening nursing home evictions. We now know that was a significant blunder; we don’t have polling numbers yet to know what the public thinks of his gambit, but we do know that a week ago John Bel Edwards had more or less complete control over the Senate and now he does not, and it’s those nursing home eviction letters which were offered as an explicit reason for his loss by no less than Senate President John Alario.
So the budget now goes to Edwards’ desk. He can either veto it or sign it.
Edwards hasn’t said what he’ll do. What he did say was that he’d prevent the budget, in its current posture, from becoming law. The only way he can do that is to veto the budget, and he’s already screwed that up as a realistic option – albeit one he might well exercise.
Why do we say that? Because of the call the governor issued for the special session which is supposed to open next week.
In that call Edwards set an end date of June 4, which is the date this current regular session is set to end. The rationale for having a special session end there is to prevent the usual griping about the state wasting money on special sessions rather than getting their jobs done in the normal time allotted; if the special session is done on June 4 the argument is that it didn’t cost the taxpayers additional money to put it on and so it’s not inappropriate to have it.
The problem is that a special session which begins on May 22 and ends on June 4 is a special session with only 10 working days and 14 total days, in the event the Legislature will work through weekends. And putting a brand new budget together in that time frame is pretty close to impossible.
Bear in mind that before you could rework the budget in a special session, you’d have to pass the taxes that would generate the revenue to make the new budget look different from the one the House just sent to Edwards’ desk. So you need tax bills introduced in the House, heard in the Ways and Means Committee, brought to the House floor, passed in the House, introduced in the Senate, heard in the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee, brought to the Senate floor, passed in the Senate, brought back to the House if any amendments to those bills were to be made in the Senate, then voted on for concurrence with the amendments, and if insufficient votes for concurrence were had you’d then have a conference committee on those tax bills with votes in both houses for the conference report.
Then the tax bills would have to go to Edwards’ desk for his signature.
And once he’d signed the bills, you’d then have to have a meeting of the Revenue Estimating Conference to recognize an estimate of the revenue from the tax bills.
THEN you can start on the budget. And the budget would have to follow pretty much the same process as those tax bills – from House Ways and Means to the House floor, then Senate Finance to the Senate floor.
There is no way to do all of this in 14 days. It’s possible only if there is no major fight at any step of the process, and there will be one. Let’s remember that Edwards base of support, the Legislative Black Caucus, blew up this year’s first special session over the prospect of sales tax renewals; the LBC demanded that new taxes come from changing the state’s income tax brackets, which was a non-starter with the Republican majority. Whether anything will have changed this time around is a question for which the answer is not currently in evidence; to get a two-thirds vote on anything other than a small renewal of sales taxes is actually a long shot.
So Edwards more or less has to sign the budget. He can either do that or issue a call for a third special session of this year, wherein the budget can be processed after the taxes are passed in the second special session. And that third special session is going to take place amid the state’s voters beginning to pay attention and wondering what kind of idiot is in charge that the state isn’t capable of making a budget after almost five months of trying.
Which means it’s a quite unpalatable idea, even before you factor in the exhaustion and inevitable rage Edwards would engender from legislators who can be expected to increasingly pop off about what a lousy governor he is.
But if he signs the budget, he’s also signing away the lion’s share of his leverage – if not all of it. Because at that point the state will have a budget, and the need for tax increases to balance it won’t actually be present; that’s not to say some new revenue measure won’t be agreed upon, but Edwards and Dardenne won’t be able to play the Parade of Horribles game anymore, because they’d have to account for the destination of every dime of new revenue to a legislature which might well not be able to agree that more money for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries or the state parks is worth the net loss of a few hundred private sector jobs that a tax increase would bring on.
At that point, Edwards largely becomes a beggar to the legislature, after having alienated a majority of members of both houses. They’ll owe him nothing, and he will have drained away most of his credibility with the nursing home gambit.
Conservatives in both the House and the Senate are in a very strong position, particularly given that tax increases require a two thirds vote. In the House that means they’re in a position to extract almost whatever they want in order to let any tax bills go forward, and one gets the impression many of them are in a mood to do just that.
In short, Edwards had badly botched the budget process and he’s lost control of the legislature. This session has become something of his Waterloo, and its effects will color the rest of his term in office.
UPDATE: An interesting video from the House GOP delegation’s press conference following the budget vote…