With one boneheaded, tone-deaf piece of legislation, Louisiana’s Republican legislative leadership threw away any chance they had to differentiate clearly a GOP-led Legislature from spender-in-chief Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards – and on a silver platter handed Edwards a means to diffuse criticism of him.
HB 39 in the special session started off innocuously enough. Author Republican state Rep. Zee Zeringue – as head of the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, a top lieutenant of GOP Speaker Clay Schexnayder – originally asked only to take $15 million out of apparently leftover dollars, from a federal government boost the portion of Medicaid it finances through the end of the year and let the Louisiana Public Defender Board use it to buy office space for its constituent districts. This would free up rent money that could go to supplementing a system chronically short of funds that has triggered a suit over that lacking, which allegedly causes inadequate representation.
The simplicity obscured that the bill would serve as the vehicle for other adjustments in the budget as since the fiscal year commenced the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic continued and the state received two hurricane blows, and cybersecurity matters increasingly gained in importance. Principally – and leaders had articulated this as one of the two major reasons to have the session – it would trigger a refill of the Unemployment Compensation Fund, as economic retrenchment due to restrictions imposed by Edwards had caused a spike in unemployment that increased benefits going out and reduction in business that reduced tax collections from employers going in.
As it left the House, the bill still looked pretty pristine. The cybersecurity measures had gone in as well as some state-level virus mitigation items. The House also shifted more spending to home- and community-based services for persons with disabilities, courtesy of deficit reduction contingency planning mandated in the existing operating budget. Only a couple of somewhat questionable items had snuck in: a $2.5 million grant to the New Orleans-run City Park (which actually the state owns), compensating for “lost revenue,” as well as a special earmark for the parish’s emergency response operations. Yet the unemployment fund relief remained absent.
It finally appeared in the Senate, to the tune of $115.4 million – but with some needless hitchhikers at the behest of Zeringue. About $7 million mostly going to Orleans, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, Livingston, and other river parishes, plus around the northeast corner of the state, caught a ride.
The fund reimbursement figure came from contingency savings that Republican state Sen. Cameron Henry had amended into the bill plus CARES Act money reallocated because state health care spending tapped into Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements instead. The $15 million stayed, despite reservations that it could be used for capital outlay. The Senate Finance Committee, helmed by Zeringue’s opposite number GOP state Sen. Bodi White, whipped it through there and the Senate.
Then, in conference, the dam burst. $15 million more in local items cascaded in. Joining Zeringue and White on that committee were Schexnayder and Republican Sen. Pres. Page Cortez, plus long-serving Democrats state Rep. Francis Thompson and state Sen. Greg Tarver. Schexnayder, Thompson, White, and Zeringue prior to the bill heading to conference already had a lot of spending coming into or near their districts; afterwards, several more items popped up in and around Cortez’s and a few in northwest Louisiana, home of Tarver, landed in the bill with the couple already there.
In all, 50 items bloomed sending money to municipalities. Only a couple addressed some kind of emergency relief, and 13 essentially were blank checks, shuttling state taxpayer money to a vague purpose or simply none at all. Among parishes and parish-level entities like sheriffs’ departments, seven such blank check items appeared out of 36, with only five others for relief. Special districts, mainly fire districts, didn’t get left out; seven of the 18 of these were basically blank checks. Nor did nongovernmental organizations, as ten racked up public money.
While items disproportionately went to the districts of or near the conference committee members, the largesse covered the state; after all, to roll a log properly, almost everybody has to buy in. And from where did the additional bucks come to pay it all off? The committee dropped the public defense item to $3 million then took another $5 million from $90 million of intended unemployment benefit fund dollars, plus stripped the $25.4 million in general fund saving at the behest of the Edwards Administration to leave the fund rebuild at $85 million. A muscular rescue turned flabby and into an orgy of pork barrel spending.
But having made enough bacon in the past, chamber leaders knew to overcome the resistance of legislators against in principle this kind of lard-slinging they had to make the bill must pass. Thus, they jammed the 114 cutlets in there with the fund rescue, and most of the opposition held their noses and voted for it.
Almost nothing within the $22 million had any urgency. Some items had been floated before, and the local governments or NGOs involved had lived without these. That they hadn’t scrounged their own funds to come up with these proved the lack of criticality to these. Meanwhile, the clock ticks on the money borrowed for the fund, which could have had state taxpayers owing $22 million fewer (plus interest) without the tossing of bushels of money at things like more fire hydrants ($739,000), a leadership institute ($500,000), recreation ($950,000), and an unused lighthouse ($250,000).
If local governments are hurting because of the pandemic and need resources, get rid of the needlessly suffocating restrictions placed by Edwards – which the Legislature can do but the bills to do so remain bottled up principally by Cortez at this point, but no doubt with backing by Schexnayder. And a lot of it will be in vain anyway, if Edwards is smart.
Because if so, he’ll cast a line item veto on a lot of these, particularly those involving the GOP leadership, and dare the Legislature to override him. It won’t, because too many members who went to Baton Rouge telling their constituents they would stop profligate pork barrel spending won’t have appreciated being hung out to dry on the vote approving this melded to the rescue package.
Regardless, by having this bill go through in this form, Schexnayder, Cortez, and other GOP legislative leaders have forfeited their right to position themselves as more responsible, more taxpayer-responsive policy-makers than Edwards. In fact, his line item vetoes can make him appear to be the responsible one, saving taxpayers from spendthrifts even as his fiscal malpractice more than anyone led to the fund deficit in the first place.
This will turn out to be a public relations disaster for legislative Republican leaders, who clearly think that will be outweighed by the support they receive from benefitting local elites and lobbyists. And Edwards must thank his lucky stars for the political gift from these tyros.