Too much political debt and enough possible upside has put Louisiana Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards on a collision course with the Republican-led Legislature that could break or keep alive his policy-maker relevance for the next three-plus years.
Edwards set up this huge rendezvous with his veto of SB 418 by Republican state Sen. Kirk Talbot. That bill would introduce a number of changes to the state’s tort law regarding vehicle accident disputes that would put the state in line with the laws in others that have far lower vehicle premium insurance rates.
In the final analysis, Edwards had to do it. With the bill having passed with two veto-proof majorities in the Senate and once with the same in the House although the other time a bit shy, it’s close enough of a margin that he might be able to avoid an override.
His safest option would have been to let the bill become law. That way, he wouldn’t risk the humiliation of an override, which would be just the third ever in the state’s modern history. By piercing this veneer of his invulnerability, it would be open season on him politically with this demonstration of his impotency in protecting a high-profile policy agenda item signaling to his own party members that they are better off cutting deals with the Republican legislative leadership.
At the same time, meekly giving in doesn’t make his position much better. With his clean sheet of vetoes left intact, he still could run a somewhat-convincing bluff with use (or the threat thereof) of that power, but it wouldn’t add that much to his ability to project power. But in terms of power, he would receive a significant boost in that by surviving a veto attempt. In other words, the traction he could gain by winning a veto fight would at least equal that which he would lose through a successful override, compared to the null position of doing nothing.
But one other consideration also pushed him towards the veto – that he received tens of millions of dollars in campaign support from trial lawyer lobbies and others benefitting from the current system that essentially transfers wealth from policyholders to them. They bought him, and he is expected to do all he can to deliver by resisting any reforms or else find their support evaporating.
Regardless, Edwards likely is whistling into the wind, if the legislative leadership checks off certain boxes. Since the Legislature is in (special) session presently, it has until Jun. 30 to attempt an override (it also could call a veto override session a few days after, but why bother when it’s already in town). Certain things must happen by certain deadlines to ensure the override succeeds.
As previously noted, the Senate seems unlikely to soften in its approval of the bill, so the heavy lifting will come in the House. A few votes are in play there, in all but two instance having voted absent when dealing with the bill’s conference report after having voted for it when it left the House (the other was two absences of a Republican who will support an override).
At least two of those GOP votes came as a result of a conference change that allowed far too much recovery of damages. They can be recaptured through passage of HB 43 by Republican state Rep. Ray Garofalo that excises that last-minute change. If leaders could scrounge the votes for SB 418 of the regular session, they can do the same for the HB 43 of the special session.
Leadership also can play hardball on capital outlay items and committee assignments with Democrats who wavered and the one Republican defector, state Rep. Joe Stagni; pick off any one of them and they have the 70 needed votes. It’s taken a big step forward with swift movement of the capital outlay bill HB 2 that not only stays under the allowable debt limit, but also should move quickly enough so that if Edwards, who will receive the bill shortly, casts line-item vetoes they should be overridden during the session because everybody will vote for everybody’s measures to stay in, thus removing a weapon Edwards could use to entice support.
There’s also the option of passing a de novo reform bill almost identical to SB 418 as an (uh) insurance measure, of which several options present themselves. Regardless, leadership must move all of the bills immediately as they would have to arrive at the governor’s mansion by Thursday to have a shot at an override vote (if they wanted to increase their odds of that, leadership could call for another special session by Jun. 23 effectively to add a few more days onto the current one).
(Unfortunately, the tragic death of GOP freshman state Rep. Reggie Bagala earlier this year affects this outcome. He would have been a sure vote for reform, so it would be cruel fate if the absence of his one vote – two-thirds of the seated membership is required – needlessly cost Louisianans hundreds of millions of dollars extra in premiums for at least another year.)
Get their ducks in a row, and the GOP-led Legislature should make Edwards’ veto effort futile. But he had to try or else see his continuing slide towards irrelevancy accelerate.