Louisiana Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards capitulated on one issue, and legislative Republicans have decided to follow the same strategy to make him cry uncle on one even more important.
Earlier this week, the Republican-controlled Senate began moving SB 12 and SB 18 by GOP Sen. Big Mike Fesi. The former, a constitutional amendment, and the latter, its statutory equivalent, would disallow the Legislature from using one-time money from unclaimed funds held in escrow for continuing expenses except for one dedication already in law.
These mirrored legislation that advanced in the regular session until, in its final minutes, the constitutional amendment version hit a snag in the Senate. Although it received majority approval, an amendment requires a two-thirds supermajority approval. The same happened initially with SB 12, with several senators from both parties flipping their votes from the regular session.
But these setbacks didn’t mean the state could spend money budgeted from unclaimed monies this upcoming fiscal year. Republican Treas. John Schroder said he wouldn’t release such funds, which drew a suit from Edwards. A poorly-reasoned and convoluted district court decision went against Schroder. But it also put him in position to file an appeal that he stood a good chance of winning. Moreover, in filing the appeal, legally he couldn’t be forced to release the money until the case was decided, which might be months into the fiscal year and meant budgeters couldn’t use it.
This prompted Senate action on SB 12, called from the calendar on Monday and passed unanimously along with its companion. It underwent cosmetic wording changes, their absence of which would not have changed how the state could use unclaimed property money compared to the original language yet afforded the chance for the Edwards Administration to claim victory two days later and proclaim it no longer opposed Schroder’s move. Subsequently, the House passed both by overwhelming margins, sending them to conference.
In turn, Schroder said with the bills’ enaction – the amendment vote Edwards can’t touch but he could veto the accompanying statute – he would drop the suit and release the money. If voters ratify the amendment later this year, FY 2020 would be the last year the Legislature can sweep unclaimed funds.
Edwards, whose primary mission as governor is to grow state government as much and as permanently as possible, got out of the way only because Schroder otherwise boxed him in. The treasurer basically shut him out from spending the unclaimed funds sweep and the tenuousness of the favorable court decision raised the real likelihood the eventual precedent set under present law would favor Schroder. In acquiescing, he gets the money and can work (likely behind the scenes) to have the amendment defeated to allow the practice to continue, as by having the appeal dropped and going through the amendment process those on Schroder’s side admit politically that statute as written doesn’t favor their interpretation.
However, to punctuate the humiliation, the $37 million let loose Republicans won’t let Edwards spend on anything but tax breaks for ailing businesses hurt by Edwards’ clampdown on the economy as a response to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. He had wanted to shuttle money to increase state employee, including elected officials’, salaries, but the GOP astutely observed that hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Louisianans needed more a mechanism to increase the number of jobs than did tens of thousands of workers on the state payroll, which barely has budged downwards, needed a pay raise.
So, Edwards took the best option available to him, which almost certainly will turn into a net win for those who believe in limited government. Legislative Republicans seemed to have grasped the concept and have transplanted it to the biggest issue of the year – displaying along the way a healthy distrust of Edwards.
Additionally, this week, the House passed GOP state Rep. Alan Seabaugh’s HCR 18, 19, and 20. These mirror Senate resolutions that suspend for about a year starting Aug. 1 exclusion of seat belt usage in determining accident tort damages, the ability to sue directly insurers relative to such accidents, and the current jury threshold of $50,000. In essence, these represent a temporary but more extreme version of HB 57 by Republican Speaker Clay Schexnayder, which permanently would put the threshold at $10,000, tie damages more realistically to actual costs, introduce seat belt usage as evidence for damage determination, and take effect in 2021.
This puts Edwards between permanent changes he dislikes but could veto and risk an override and temporary but renewable ones that he absolutely loathes but cannot stop. Either he swallows HB 57 or he inevitably gets something worse. And, in a sign Republicans don’t trust him at all, the three are tied to the one in that the language of the resolutions say they automatically will go into effect if they bill doesn’t become law.
The bill resides in conference, put there in case adjustments need making prior to the session’s close next week. The resolutions will pass in identical form prior to then. It’s the same strategy as with the unclaimed money: force liberal Edwards into two unpleasant but distinctly different options that both achieve conservative policy objectives, and he won’t be able to stave off both and must choose the one less injurious to his own agenda.
Rack up another success with an Edwards signing of HB 57, and it seems legislative conservatives will have gotten the hang of this behaving-like-a-majority thing. Which will make the next three years much more pleasant and productive for Louisiana than otherwise.