During June’s special session that resolved the state’s operating budget, despite knowledge of the impending economic dislocation courtesy of Edwards proclamations shutting down large portions of the state’s economy as a response to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, Edwards and Dardenne presented a budget that shrank government not one bit. This discouraged the Republican majority Legislature from resisting, and it acquiesced in expanding government at a time that revenues demonstrably would shrink.
But the GOP-led chambers didn’t completely abdicate. One measure they imposed to rein in unnecessary spending prohibited appropriation of $57 million to fund programmed pay raises for state civil service employees. These occur automatically annually unless the State Civil Service Commission acts to mitigate these. Legislators said that they couldn’t see their way to using extra taxpayer resources on this when almost none of these employees had experienced job loss or furloughs while a significant portion of nongovernment sector employees had, with that held back money more usefully applied to relief for nongovernment workers.
In response, Edwards cast a line item veto against that stricture, falsely claiming that it contravened the constitutional power of the SCSC to decide upon compensation. It did nothing of the sort; it merely said that certain monies couldn’t be used for the raises, meaning that if these went through that agencies would have to scrounge around their existing budgets to fund raises. With the money specifically there (and the budget kept in balance through other Edwards line item vetoes), the SCSC dutifully took no action against the raises at its July meeting.
It didn’t take the chickens long to come home and roost. Last week, Dardenne had to defend the action in a meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget required so as to reveal the Edwards Administration’s plans to deal with the coming deficit because of suppressed revenues. He said the spending needed to happen anyway because the SCSC showed no “inkling” that it wanted to compensate for the increases by instituting layoff avoidance plans in affected agencies.
This dissembled in two ways. First, the SCSC could have ushered the raises through without such a plan, leaving it up to the agencies to find money within their existing resources. In fact, the excised budget language ordered Dardenne to do this and sequester the money in a fund, but that this could be reviewed by Oct. 15 and potentially released, merely delaying funds reception to back raises. If not changed, the $57 million or so would have remained available for other uses – like towards the looming revenue shortfall.
Second, Dardenne conveyed the misimpression that Edwards had no influence over the SCSC. In fact, Edwards has appointed every single member of the body except the elected employee representative. And two of them he’ll have a chance to reappoint, Scott Hughes and Jo Ann Nixon. While the Constitution tries to insulate the body from the majoritarian branches – private college leaders each give three names for selection by the governor – the fact is each member was chosen instead of two others because of the governor, and two of them will depend upon him for reappointment. To say a governor could not have influenced the panel to compensate for the raises to save the money ignores political reality and distracts from the truth rather than informs.
But that’s the story Dardenne tried to shovel, to obscure the fact that Edwards is the responsible party for blowing $57 million more on government when the state’s people outside of it are hurting far more. Keep in mind that Edwards’ strategy to navigate the coming fiscal crisis – with the next fiscal year’s general fund deficit already estimated at nearly $700 million – is to preserve as much government as possible and hope first for the federal government to bail out his profligacy but if not then go through his usual routine of demanding tax increases or else cut important services.
Either way, taxpayers fork over more. The alternative of putting a lid on spending isn’t on Edwards’ radar, as the priorities he showed on this matter demonstrate.