Wounded animals lash out, and that’s what Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has done wielding his veto pen after the humiliation he suffered at the hands of the Republican-led Louisiana Legislature in the first half of the year. He’s doing what he can to salvage some relevance, which isn’t a lot.
With the possible exceptions of former Republican Govs. Dave Treen and Buddy Roemer, no governor in modern state history suffered more brutalization in a calendar year by legislators as did Edwards this year. He absorbed several defeats in the almost total failure of his agenda and in having to accept things contrary to it.
Chief among these was tort reform that will trigger lower vehicle insurance premiums but at the cost of defunding both one of his major constituencies and state Democrats. Republicans outmaneuvered him to put him in a no-win situation where he dares not exercise his veto power. They did the same regarding capital outlay, forcing him to accept in total the Legislature’s list.
But his ability to cast line item vetoes in other budget bills remained unconstrained, so he fought back. Ironically, typically such vetoes reduce state spending, but Edwards, not ironically, found a way to boost it by $69 million in the general appropriations bill HB 1. (Vetoes to stricter Medicaid eligibility checking he alleged would save additional costs of $42 million, but that figure neglects the much larger savings probable by doing this.)
He excised $9 million by negating an appropriation he claimed the state fire marshal hadn’t requested and by taking money set aside to go to local governments. At the same time, he jacked up spending by $78 million through reinserting $57 million set aside for classified employee pay raises and $21 million more in delayed executive agency spending under the governor’s control.
If Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel were appropriated for Edwards’ explanation of many of his vetoes, the operative phrase would replace “patriotism” with “claims of unconstitutionality.” In fact, none of his assertions in this regard hold water.
For example, Edwards wrote about the raises, which the Legislature wanted to hold off because of uncertain future state finances and the significant hit taxpayers have taken economically while state employees have not suffered at all with the exception of some enforced furloughs, that the refusal to appropriate constituted a “violation of Article 10, Section 10 of the Louisiana Constitution, encroach[ing] upon the exclusive constitutional authority of the State Civil Service Commission to regulate the compensation of employees in the classified service and meet its duty to maintain a uniform pay and classification plan.”
It does nothing of the sort. The passage in HB 1 merely says that certain monies won’t be used for the raises. It doesn’t attenuate the ability of the State Civil Service Commission to grant raises under its own authority, so in that case agencies would have to scrounge around for monies to do this and they have the authority to make budget adjustments to do it.
This particular veto actually carries a subtext: that Edwards’ political stock has fallen so much that he can’t be sure that the CSC – excepting the employee representative all its members are Edwards appointees and typically beholden to him – would have issued the market adjustment raises that upon doing so would put him in a fiscal bind. As with uncorking the $21 million early, this was about growing government by spending more in a bid to make the adjustment upwards a permanent feature of a larger state budget.
Making false unconstitutionality claims serves only as a smokescreen to the essential truth behind Edwards and his striking back: he wants to inflate government, he’s angry that the Legislature stood up to him and imposed its will on him that damaged his ego, so he cast these vetoes to salvage what he could in the most vindictive way he could.