SADOW: Override Effects To Ripple Well Past Edwards

While the historic veto override of last week certainly demonstrated the continued deterioration of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ power, it also has future implications beyond his time in office.

When both chambers of the Legislature slapped down Edwards’ veto of a recent special session bill reapportioning the state’s congressional districts – especially with the House gaining crossover votes from a Democrat and three non-party representatives in order to succeed – it represented the first time a veto session had overturned a governor’s wish on anything. That came on the heels of the first veto session ever last summer, making this one just the second in nearly a half-century under the current Constitution.

Although conventional wisdom posits that Louisiana’s governor wields much power, actually those formally enshrined in the Constitution don’t give him an extraordinary amount, especially when compared to some other governors. The state’s chief executive doesn’t face some limitations as do some, not having to settle for relative few appointments and not facing much legislative ability to check executive orders, but at the same time only has all-or-nothing veto power except for budget line items and all can be overridden by the Legislature and he must put up with more separately-elected independent constitutional executive officers and boards than in almost any other state.

Whatever perception of large gubernatorial power exists does so only at the sufferance of the Legislature, if it permits gubernatorial meddling in selecting its leadership, rubber-stamps his appointees, and looks the other way when he casts vetoes, for example. However, this veto override signals a culmination of the Legislature’s will, particularly its leadership, in not wanting to play ball anymore.

It’s no accident that at this juncture in time exists the greatest gulf between the legislative policy agenda, set by Republicans, and the governor, a Democrat. Although since the Constitution came into effect nearly half that time has featured nominally divided government, in many of those years the historical norm of the governor providing legislative leadership brought agendas largely into line. More than anything, legislative terms limits, which began kicking in fifteen years ago, ended that since members couldn’t use gubernatorial favoritism as a means to acquire institutional power, since they would have to leave that chamber typically in no more than 12 consecutive years (and, recent academic research suggests, should trigger stronger chamber leadership that will exacerbate the trend eroding gubernatorial power further).

Thus, with a more fiscally-conservative legislative majority than in the past and with one of the most liberal governors in history not only fiscally but, as he demonstrated with sustained vetoes last year on bills covering social issues on that policy dimension as well, and with this Legislature’s rejecting gubernatorially-stamped leadership, the string snapped. The Legislature more than ever will want to exert independence from the governor since its policy needs, reflecting the constituencies of a majority of its members, like never before diverge from those of the governor.

This divergence triggered the initial veto session and now the override. The glass breaking cannot be underestimated, for it introduced legislators to enduring the inconvenience of a return trip to the Capitol in mid-July and to working together more than listening to a governor’s blandishments. In turn, this change of habit will discourage candidates not willing to behave the same while emboldening those so willing, meaning the 2024 and beyond legislatures will have higher proportions of members amenable to making veto sessions a regular occurrence.

As a next step, it will lead to stabbing at the most consequential of all Louisiana gubernatorial powers, the line-item veto. If already having to attend a one- to five-day veto session, they might as well all band together to sustain any vetoes cast against any of their requests in the budgets they approved. Once this becomes habitual, spending plans will shift more towards an emphasis on legislative priorities, not holding back from putting popular items in out of fear of a line-item veto.

Then doing something about the large amount of lower-level gubernatorial appointments – either by eliminating some or with the Senate becoming more assertive in vetting appointees – and the governor’s power declines even further. That would complete a revolutionary development in a state with hundreds of years of history vesting power in the hands of a single chief executive, all triggered when evolving conditions met a governor so at odds with many citizen preferences. Not exactly the legacy Edwards will wish to have left.

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