The next month will determine whether the governorship of Democrat John Bel Edwards becomes irrelevant, or merely slides into semi-irrelevancy.
It’s over immediately for Edwards as a significant agent in Louisiana’s policy-making process if a petition to attenuate, if not overturn, his emergency proclamations regarding the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic succeeds in the next couple of days. Despite scant evidence to support his claims, last week Edwards alleged he needed to continue the series of restrictions (absent very minor modifications) imposed over the past 45 days on gatherings and business activities in the state, and issued the appropriate proclamation. This irked mainly Republican legislators, who wish to utilize state law to reverse some, if not all, of those restrictions through a majority in at least one legislative chamber.
If they pull it off, it’s open season on Edwards’ agenda from there on out. Proven impotent by majorities who demonstrated willingness to use their power, he will lose much of the informal authority derived from the office’s formal powers. For example, with this proven ability to defy what’s to stop the logrolling that produces line-item capital expenditures in budgeting from gathering majorities to hold quick veto override sessions where two-thirds votes wipe out gubernatorial line-item vetoes? Chamber GOP leaderships will tell Democrats that if they want line items in budgets, they’ll have to join in the overrides, and they’ll know they can’t depend upon Edwards to bail them out.
Due to this threat, Edwards might surrender and declare victory. If presented with evidence the petitioning certainly will succeed, he may walk back the most recent proclamation and suffer the humiliation that would go with that in order to avoid the greater humiliation and loss of power by going down with the ship.
Even if the negating petitions don’t succeed, Edwards will see his agenda routed. Likely none of the non-fiscal items will pass, certainly those that never had a chance because of the liberal policies they espouse but also the few symbolic ones because of the compressed schedule – absent a special session which would occur only to deal with the upcoming fiscal year budget, the budget and all other matters lawmakers must wrap up in four weeks. And his fiscal matters woven into the budget, such as various spending increases, are dead on arrival because of a looming budget deficit for fiscal year 2021.
He will have to adopt an extremely defensive posture in part because of the asserted fortitude displayed by the Republican legislative majorities. Their leaders have stated they will dedicate the next 28 days to formulating a budget consistent with fiscal realities and pursue economic policy solutions to address the fallout from the virus.
Practically speaking, this means at least two things Edwards desperately wants to avoid: a rejection of additional tax increases to augment a budget that otherwise will reduce the size of government, and tort reform to lower costs and put more money in the hands of the people. If he loses on both, while it will not demonstrate the complete neutering of Edwards as the defiance inherent to the petition succeeding would have done, it will show he no longer is the most important or influential policy-maker in state government.
Only if he somehow could arrange for significant tax increases – in the face of perhaps the most anti-tax Legislature in the state’s last nine decades in an environment reflecting an obvious truth that tax increases would harm the nation’s most vulnerable economy – to fuel an oversized budget and defeat tort reform can Edwards save his leading man role in state government. The GOP leadership can minimize this possibility with a bit of parliamentary maneuvering.
Already, Republican Senate Pres. Page Cortez has said the Senate will not launch budget bills until after the projected May 11 Revenue Estimating Conference meeting, and likely GOP House Speaker Clay Schexnayder will schedule the same in his chamber. Cortez also has said he considers tort reform a priority to put money in the hands of ratepayers.
Thus, leadership can spend the first couple of weeks of May working tort reform through the system (each chamber has several bills as options, not counting Edwards-backed bills trying to do the opposite). Then they can tackle the budget and tie passage of both together. And they already have a head start on capital outlay, which they should plug in as well.
If they get the tort reform and capital outlay bills to Edwards before May 21, he would have to act on them prior to session’s end on Jun. 1. That way, legislators will have a chance to override vetoes by the session’s end, and by tying all matters together – for example, a promise to override any line item veto Edwards may use as a threat to protect his tort reform veto – they can win it all.
This leaves the operating budget unresolved, and leadership simply should concede this must go to special session. That also takes away the line item threat for approving of the budget, since the capital outlay budget will be done and dusted prior to the special session.
So, to give itself even more leverage, the Legislature should preempt Edwards and call a special session – now. By starting the petition process immediately specifying the session would allow only for veto overrides, tort reform (if they need to take another crack at it), and operating budget matters – explicitly leaving out any tax increase attempts – they will box in Edwards completely.
And, Edwards must sign whatever they present. His sole credibility has become reduced to what government delivers to certain constituencies. Without a budget, on Jul. 1 in short order state government stops delivering.
It’s a longer path to his irrelevancy, but one which will come without the cancellation of emergency proclamations if the conservative majority in the Legislature plays its cards right. And it’s necessary. The policy retrogression harkening back to what has kept Louisiana backwards that Edwards represents was lamentable but tolerable under normal circumstances. In these times with fiscal Armageddon potentially on the doorstep, it’s unaffordable.