We Might Well Finally Be Entering The Lame Duck Phase Of John Bel Edwards’ Time As Governor

If you missed what happened in the Senate Finance Committee earlier today, when Gov. John Bel Edwards’ No. 2 man took it on the chin, Joe Cunningham has a pretty good writeup of what happened here at The Hayride on the subject.

Essentially, the Senate Finance Committee responded to the scare tactics Gov. John Bel Edwards has embarked on by replacing the money in the Louisiana Department of Health’s budget the House cut, which sent Edwards on a wild campaign of accusing the House Republicans of putting old people out of nursing homes, but financing that funding through draconian cuts to the various other state agencies. It’s more or less an across-the-board 24 percent funding reduction, which the Lafayette Advertiser quoted committee chairman and Edwards loyalist Eric Lafleur as saying “effectively closes state government.”

It doesn’t, but it does probably mean a whole bunch of state workers get laid off. In a state which lost jobs last year, there might not be too many private sector folks who are unhappy about that.

Everybody thinks there will be a special session and some sort of tax solution will pass – like perhaps a quarter of the one penny state sales tax passed on a temporary basis will be renewed, and the proceeds from that would go toward re-funding those state agencies.

But the position Edwards and his Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne took was that the Senate shouldn’t do anything with the budget at all, and to just end the regular session early and go into a special session without a budget in hand. Then they could run a bunch of tax increases through and get a budget more along the lines of what they want.

When the Senate wouldn’t do that, and decided they’d continue moving the budget through the regular process, Edwards sent Dardenne to the witness table at the Finance Committee’s hearing today. And Dardenne attempted to read the committee members the riot act, essentially trashing them as no better than the House Republicans Edwards has been at non-stop war with since his man Walt Leger lost the election for House Speaker in January of 2016.

But if this week’s threats to throw Momma from the nursing home were a bridge too far, Dardenne’s appearance was a plunge in the drink. His approbation of the Finance Committee for moving the budget didn’t go over well at all.

Senate President John Alario, who for two and a half years has been the governor’s minion in the Senate and who usually sits in Finance as a silent observer, responded to Dardenne by chastising him for scaring seniors on Medicaid with eviction letters and chiding him for throwing stones at the Senate for its budget. That was more or less a bomb blast going off at the Capitol, because it sent a signal that Edwards no longer commands the loyalty of his floor leader in the Senate. And once Alario let fly, members of the committee then took turns verbally horsewhipping Dardenne in one of the more memorable shows we’ve seen with Sharon Hewitt accusing Dardenne of throwing gas on the fire, Jack Donohue ripping him for calling the committee’s work product a “pretend budget” (which was a term Lafleur, the chairman, had used, and when that was pointed out to Donohue he expanded his umbrage in Lafleur’s direction as well) and Bodi White terming his testimony an insult to the committee.

Having lost the House at the very beginning of his term, and having essentially lost Alario and the Senate along with him today, Edwards now faces a major, major problem. He might be standing alone now with no help in the state legislature.

What to watch for next week is that budget bill hitting the Senate floor and passing – the insiders all seem to think that’s what’s coming. It seems pretty clear at this point that the nursing home scare tactics were a classic blunder, and Edwards has alienated both houses of the legislature in doing so; Dardenne’s disastrous performance today only cemented that fact.

So if the budget passes the Senate and goes to Edwards’ desk with massive cuts to state agencies but full funding for the Department of Health so that those eviction letters are null and void, it presents him with a dilemma. The governor says he’s going to veto the budget, but he can’t really do that politically without cutting his own throat – not after the histrionics of this week. It’s unlikely the veto would be overridden, but if he vetoed it he’d get a special session like he wanted, but not with the kind of environment he’s looking for.

But if he doesn’t veto the budget, he’s accepting what’s essentially is a slap in the face from the Senate, and that’s a major problem for his prestige, not to mention he’s going to be overseeing lots of layoffs of state workers and an inevitable blowback from recipients of government services unhappy with the thinner gruel he can offer them.

Meanwhile, the special session talk is beginning – with Edwards’ allies at the Louisiana Budget Project floating the idea of renewing 3/4ths of a penny of state sales taxes which expire in July balanced against an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which essentially amounts to a bribe to the Legislative Black Caucus in return for their support of a sales tax increase rather than the income tax hikes they’ve demanded. The EITC idea is going to be very, very unpopular with Republicans and seems almost inexplicably like a provocation for them to kill it and force another crisis scenario ripe for more scare tactics. There isn’t much reason for optimism that a deal can be had on revenue in a special session without the political waters boiling over yet again.

One way or another, it seems pretty clear that Edwards has badly overreached and damaged himself. He’s diminishing before our eyes, and it’s going to be very interesting to see whether he can politically survive the next couple of weeks without becoming a lame duck awaiting a good cooking in the 2019 elections.

 

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