Gov. John Bel Edwards is facing the first of several key decisions centered on a single question: Should he try to gain more leverage over the Legislature by selectively punishing several of the lawmakers who thwarted his initiatives on the budget and taxes this year?
The governor will have the opportunity to strike at those he labels “obstructionists” when he decides this week whether to veto any projects in House Bill 2, which lists all of the infrastructure projects — roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewer systems and the like — scheduled to receive state construction dollars for the new budget year that begins on July 1.
Edwards will have further opportunities to take action against lawmakers in July, and also later in the year, when he decides which projects to forward to the State Bond Commission to approve the actual funding. He can withhold money for specific projects in HB2, which gives him enormous power since the projects allow Republicans and Democrats alike to win a reputation back home as doers in Baton Rouge. Doers generally win re-election.
With those political dynamics, governors and their senior advisers have traditionally used the threat of killing a hometown project to encourage uncooperative legislators to fall into line on key votes. In his first year, Edwards, a Democrat, used that weapon sparingly — to the dismay of some of his Democratic allies in the state House. The state’s budget problems, which left him with less money to spend on local construction projects, limited the governor’s ability to punish recalcitrant lawmakers.
State legislators finally departed Baton Rouge on Friday.
In May, midway through this year’s 60-day regular session, House Democrats were complaining that the governor was crowding out their requests for new projects by continuing to fund projects that had been begun under Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, in mostly Republican-held districts. Late in the session, however, the governor agreed to steer more projects to Democratic districts.
Now, many of Edwards’ allies believe that the governor should use his leverage to send a message to Republicans in the state House that they need to support his efforts to raise more revenue. The governor wants more money for the state’s colleges and universities, the prison system and K-12 schools. He also wants to expand health care for the poor and disabled and provide pay raises to state workers, especially those who receive low salaries.
The budget that the Legislature passed in the special session earlier this month provided extra funding in those areas, but it took 14 Republicans in the House breaking ranks with the Republican majority leadership for the bill to pass. It was a hard-won victory for Edwards, coming after conservatives repeatedly blocked his efforts to raise much more money.
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, is midway through his third and final term in the House. Before that, he was a top aide to Gov. Kathleen Blanco and previously served as the mayor of Franklin in St. Mary Parish. Jones, who is close to Edwards and sponsored an unpopular tax bill for him this year, has an unsentimental view of what Republicans ought to expect.
“If you want less government and that’s how you voted, then that’s probably what you’re going to get,” Jones said. “At some point, you’ve got to square up with the idea that there’s no private entity and there’s no excess dollars to apply to dredging of the ports and fixing the highways. That is a governmental, public responsibility. If your answer is ‘hell no’ all the time, it should be no surprise that you don’t get anything for your district.”
To be sure, any aggressive moves by Edwards will likely prompt outcries by Republicans that he’s engaging in partisan payback.
“You ought to spend your money where you have the biggest need rather than politically,” said state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell. “I-12 comes to a dead stop in St. Tammany every day because there’s not enough capacity. It’s the fastest growing parish in the state. There’s tremendous growth in the Madisonville area. Those are infrastructure needs that ought to be addressed. With growth comes traffic. We’ve outgrown our infrastructure.”
Hewitt voted against the final version of the state budget because, she said, she favored spending less than the available money in case of yet another midyear budget shortfall. So why should the governor send money to her district when she favors less spending?
“Why shouldn’t the people working hard to get cuts be rewarded for their efforts?” she said.
Inside the State Capitol, state construction spending is known as “capital outlay.” When asked what Edwards might do, Matthew Block, Edwards’ executive counsel, said: “The governor has made a commitment to right-size the capital outlay process. Our priorities are roads, ports and deferred maintenance (for state buildings). That’s the message the governor will try to send.”
Timmy Teepell served as Jindal’s first chief of staff and earned a reputation for playing political hardball. Now mostly working for Republican candidates around the country while based in Baton Rouge, Teepell warned that governors have to be careful in how they respond to those who aren’t their natural allies.
“The role of governor is to bring people together,” Teepell said. “If you’re not careful in politics, your enemies will accumulate and then you find it’s hard to get anything done. He (Edwards) has a lot of power as governor. He needs to be judicious in how he uses it. He needs to focus on persuading, not punishing.”
In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the special session, Edwards has said he wants to generate a consensus with state legislators on how to address, at an upcoming special session, a looming $1.2 billion budget deficit known as the “fiscal cliff.” Finding a solution to that problem — which stems mostly from the scheduled expiration of a temporary sales tax — escaped lawmakers during the regular session. So Edwards will have to balance any moves he makes against Republican projects with the need to gain their support to eliminate the deficit, which will hit on July 1, 2018.
Another factor for Edwards to consider as he weighs his moves on the infrastructure projects: a single lash of the governor’s whip can be effective.
In a celebrated instance, Blanco and then-Speaker Joe Salter sent a warning shot across the bow of other legislators by removing then-state Rep. Troy Hebert in 2004 as chairman of the Insurance Committee after Hebert voted against them on a major tax bill.
Afterward, Jones recalled one lawmaker asking him, worriedly, whether he might lose his seat on the prized Appropriations Committee. The lawmaker had voted against Blanco on the tax bill. “I’d sleep lightly,” Jones said he advised him.
“It cured everyone,” Jones concluded about the decision to remove Hebert.
Blanco, who faced the same decision as Edwards on HB2 during her four years as governor, said she favored helping those who helped her.
“You don’t reward your children when they have defied you,” said Blanco, who is a mother of six. “You reward them when they have behaved appropriately. Of course, legislators aren’t children, but the principles are the same.”
Regarding Edwards’ decision on HB2, she added, “If I did it, it would be very selective. It’s not good policy to veto everything or to do it with great abandon and make it known publicly that you’re punishing someone.”
Buddy Roemer, who was governor from 1988 through 1992, agreed with Blanco.
“He should concentrate on a project that saves him enough but sends a message of opposition and doesn’t do damage to the state,” Roemer said. “It should have size, importance to the Legislature and can be delayed for a while.”
The governor gets the most attention for the items that he vetoes in HB2, which Block said the governor will sign by June 30. Governors kill projects more quietly by withholding them in the list of projects for the Bond Commission to fund. Reporters rarely cover what the governor omits.
(Republicans also hold a majority in the state Senate, but under President John Alario, R-Westwego, the leadership is allied with the governor. HB2 is chock-full of projects for Alario's district.)
With attention focused on what Edwards might veto, the governor has mostly addressed the concerns of Democrats who feared that his adherence to continuing Jindal-era construction projects would leave little money for theirs’.
The key meeting to resolve this issue occurred early on the morning of the final day of the legislative session, in the Capitol’s first-floor office of state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, and the speaker pro tem. Besides Leger, two other Democratic lawmakers attended: Rep. Gene Reynolds, of Minden, who chairs the party’s House caucus, and Rep. Joe Bouie, of New Orleans, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. Representing the Edwards administration were Block; Jay Dardenne, who oversees state spending for the governor; and Mark Moses, who oversees the construction spending.
The six men reviewed a wish list of House Democrats.
After they were done, said Leger and Reynolds, the administration officials had agreed to add several projects to HB2 and move others already in the bill to a higher priority position to get funding.
“We definitely got some additional projects,” Leger said. “That meeting will help us be more productive next year.”
Before the meeting, Reynolds said, “I had to listen to the pushback from my members – ‘I didn’t get this, I didn’t get that. The governor is not listening.’ Afterwards, I could tell them, ‘He is listening.’” (Bouie didn’t return a phone call from The Advocate.)
As far back as anyone can remember, governors have rewarded and punished state legislators b…
State Rep. Robby Carter, D-Greensburg, who represents the district formerly held by Edwards, had wanted funding to move the police department in Amite, the governor’s hometown. It got $200,000.
State Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Lawtell, had wanted money to create the infrastructure for a new subdivision in Opelousas known as Opelousas Heights. It got $500,000.
Jones got $300,000 to renovate an old elementary school in Franklin.
“You can go home, and other than one or two marquee bills, people have little idea how you voted,” Jones said. “But if you bring home a new road, a new overpass, a new boat landing, it’s tangible. People say, ‘Look at Representative So-and-So, he does a good job.’”