Never let a crisis go to waste: Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards may wish to see the 2020 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature do as little as possible, and he’s found the circumstance to prompt that.
His latest proclamation dealing with the Wuhan coronavirus until Apr. 13 limits gatherings to 50 people, which undercuts the House of Representatives and its 144 members plus staff. It also puts on the rivet the 39-member Senate, when including staff. Worse for legislators, access to bars and restaurants is cut off except for take-out and delivery of food. Leaders decided to halt proceedings for at least two weeks.
Such a draconian response by Edwards might be necessary for the health and general public as a whole, but it serves a political purpose as well. On its present trajectory, the Legislature is poised to hand Edwards some significant defeats while little of his agenda has any chance of coming to fruition.
Chief among these is the budget. A month-and-a-half ago, Edwards wished to have the Revenue Estimating Conference validate enough revenue for him to ladle out increased spending that would benefit key special interest supporters and on other items. But Republican legislative leaders balked and nothing happened.
Since then, virus concerns look to decrease significantly revenues coming into the state from oil, sales taxes, and casinos/racinos. Further, the crisis actually could cause more spending to occur as a result of weaker state investment portfolios requiring more infusion of money into pension systems, beggaring other potential choices such Edwards’ preference for teacher pay raises.
The GOP-led Legislature looked primed to get a budget through sooner than later, which likely would contain spending at levels below last year’s. That apparently will go on hold for now.
By forcing this delay, it serves Edwards’ tax-and-spend agenda by allowing him to buy more time. Momentum to pass a smaller budget without tax increases may dissipate the longer Edwards says the crisis lingers whether it actually does, and he now has a month to use the mainstream media megaphone to wail that the apocalypse will come unless taxes rise and, while we’re at it, to the level necessary for him to distribute the largesse he intended all along.
As far as other issues that Edwards opposes, such as meaningful tort reform but also a whole host of others, not only can any delay put the brakes on that momentum but also give him greater leverage using his veto. GOP leaders had planned to send several high-priority bills to him well in advance of the session’s conclusion to avoid having to call a veto session (which never has succeeded under the present constitution). By trying to chop a month out of the session, he would increase the chances of legislation returning too late to the chambers in time for an override attempt during the regular session.
And this redounds to the future. If Edwards can prevent, for example, genuine tort reform from passing this year, he can hope that the initial enthusiasm for it brought in by the wave of new GOP legislators diminishes by next year to reduce its chances of passing in 2021.
At the very least, Edwards has considered how he can use shutting down the Legislature to his political advantage. If not, he would have exempted it from the restriction in the proclamation – especially as of Monday’s end the disease’s reach remained almost entirely a New Orleans area phenomenon, with all but five state cases there and none in the largest parish by population and home of the Legislature, East Baton Rouge Parish. Plus, by leadership order the Legislature already has adequate measures in place for protection.
Still, legislative leaders have shown they won’t kowtow by saying the adjournment would last two weeks, not four as Edwards’ proclamation would have it. That could set up an interesting power struggle if Edwards wants to force it, which would act as another indicator his latest proclamation also came with the expectation of a political payoff.