SADOW: The Legislature Uses Capital Outlay To Clip JBE’s Wings

Louisiana’s Republican-led Legislature continues to clip the wings of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards by reducing, at least for the time being, perhaps his strongest informal power.

That concerns a governor’s ability to control capital outlay funding. While over half of the cash portion is locked in to various transportation and coastal restoration spending plans, the rest and any bonded items policy-makers eventually decide which of and when these commence towards completion. This year, that would mean approaching $1 billion in cash items and three times that in others underwritten by bonds.

Historically, governors have two means of leverage using projects. First, the item has to make it into an appropriation bill (mostly in HB 2, the designated capital outlay bill, but others can sneak in through instruments like HB 1, the designated general appropriations bill). The governor has a line item veto power over these, which the Legislature can override if in session. Traditionally, the final products arrived too late in the session for such votes to occur, which would require a special veto override session that never has panned out since a majority of legislators are loathe to reconvene more than 40 days after the regular session, or at all, except under extreme circumstances. This made such vetoes unimpeachable and governors could use this to entice votes for or against legislation by holding a line item veto threat over projects for legislators’ districts.

Plus, governors used to have another bite at the apple. Concerning the bonded portion, all such projects need State Bond Commission approval. As recently as five years ago, governors controlled the machinations of that body, made up of five state elected officials (including himself), his right-hand man the commissioner of administration, and eight legislators equally from the chambers. Since governors traditionally had picked legislative leadership and that leadership chose other legislative SBC members, effectively they controlled the panel.

This produced leverage on capital outlay projects because the Legislature also used to oversubscribe items. The practice allowed more legislators to tell constituents promoting projects that more of these had made the cut, without actually having the money to spend on all of them. Later, the SBC would decide that, and legislators could blame it when any frustrated constituents wondered by whatever wouldn’t get built. In essence, this handed another kind of veto power to the governor with which to drive bargains.

Edwards won’t have such luxuries this year. He actually already suffered the end of his hold over the SBC a couple of years ago over the issue of underwriters’ restrictive policies against legal manufacturers and sellers of firearms. With a House leadership elected despite his attempts to influence that and other statewide elected officials, all Republicans, siding with them, the panel voted to penalize such restrictive underwriters in bidding for the state’s bond business against Edwards’s wishes, and continues to do so.

After the 2019 elections, his influence there further faded to insignificance when the Senate similarly elected leaders without his input. Now, he has only two sure votes of the 14.

And the legislative leadership mooted that question anyway when this year’s HB 2 didn’t oversubscribe, leaving $3 million in borrowing authority left over. Combined with its command of the SBC, it now can guarantee to members that whatever it allowed into the bill will get funded – with all of the leverage that holds in scraping up votes for and against its agenda.

However, the guarantee stands up only if the Legislature has a chance to override line item vetoes. It will if it can get to those votes, because these members will engage in logrolling – all will promise to vote for all overrides to save all of their projects. And woe to the member who breaks with that – the leadership can attenuate drastically the amount of capital outlay that member receives in the next three years, down to nothing.

So, it has to get to those votes. It did so this year by not completing work on HB 2 during the regular session (a reasonable outcome since essentially the first 60 percent of the session was lost to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic) and then going into special session it called on its own where it wrapped up HB 2 before half of the session had elapsed. This leaves a couple of days leeway to override any line item vetoes, basically disempowering Edwards’ ability to dangle that threat over members’ heads if they don’t support his agenda.

Future legislatures can replicate this strategy without need of a special session. That this one banged out the bill in 11 days shows it easily can conclude upcoming versions at least two weeks prior to regular session conclusions to provide override opportunities.

All in all, if it follows through the Legislature has made Edwards, and by following the same any future legislatures can make with any governor to come, a cipher in the capital outlay process, with significant negatives consequences on his ability to influence policy-making.



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