SADOW: John Bel Edwards’ Capital Outlay Chess Game

Still smarting over his many legislative defeats this year, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards was perturbed enough to conduct some gamesmanship on capital outlay.

The Louisiana Legislature has its Joint Legislative Committee on Capital Outlay to approve of forwarding items from its capital outlay bills to the State Bond Commission. Practically speaking, since the state’s executive branch or local governments carry out the actual projects, for state items it approved it relies upon the governor’s office to carry out the steps towards project completion, including sending these to the SBC to garner debt financing.

Typically, the highest-priority projects and those that already have money spent and need more perfunctorily move to the SBC. But the Edwards Administration said it wanted to hold off starting work on $136 million worth, about a fifth of the total and far above the usual amount. Those not included didn’t have a full cash commitment, except for seven specially-designated projects. In essence, this holds back capacity for projects that Edwards can choose that could allow lower-priority projects to leapfrog others.

This discretion Edwards sorely misses. In the capital outlay bill from the special session HB 2, the Legislature did two things to negate the influence governors typically have over the process. First, it didn’t put more projects in it than borrowing capacity, meaning the governor had discretion in choosing what to pursue in choices brought to the committee and SBC. Second, the governor could not block projects through a line item veto, because the Legislature passed HB 2 early enough in the process to have a chance to override any such vetoes, which surely would happen as members would log roll with each other to make sure every project of every legislator stayed in.

In essence, by saying it wanted to delay proceeding with some projects, it was attempting to recapture some of that discretion and gubernatorial leverage. Typically, governors will use this discretion to try to reward or bully legislators into supporting his agenda and opposing those items against it. The Administration claimed it wanted to hold back because HB 2 came in a couple of weeks later than usual and the next SBC meeting loomed, meaning it couldn’t do necessarily all the ground work to proceed with them at this time.

Veteran legislators knowingly voiced skepticism with the tactic and put the administration on notice they expected the vast bulk of their stalled requests to move forward, and soon. In rare instances, some projects might end up mooted for some reason, but that should be very few. As well, the Administration took a very literal stance on “late” projects (those that came in after the process of legislative choosing, which starts in November) not moving forward even given the unusual nature of the times, a delay facilitated by an Edwards line item veto in HB 29 from the special session.

It’s picayunish, as with a Legislature led by Republicans and the SBC dominated by elected Republicans, ultimately an Edwards gambit to try to replicate the carrot-dangling and switch-whipping governors have had over capital outlay will fail. Still, he will try as he definitely dislikes the new reality of an assertive Legislature – which has many diametrically opposing policy preferences from his – disempowering a governor not on the same page with it.



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