At a meeting behind closed doors Tuesday, Gov. John Bel Edwards surveyed the list of spending requests.
Twenty-two legislators from Baton Rouge and its suburbs came as supplicants, seeking the leader’s support for roads, bridges, playgrounds and other stuff. Edwards ticked down the list, stopping to point out the requests of representatives and senators who had rejected his efforts to balance the budget during the special session that ended a couple of weeks ago.
Participants in the meeting don’t recall Edwards mentioning names, but as he spoke, he made eye contact with legislators who had opposed him.
The governor talked about how government can’t provide services and pay for wants, such as projects off this list, without money. That generally means making uncomfortable decisions about raising taxes, reining in tax breaks, or by prioritizing services and cutting those deemed unworthy — all activities in which a fair number of the Capital Region Legislative Delegation refused to seriously participate.
Edwards discussed the need to work together and then mentioned how few dollars were available for local construction projects.
Denham Springs Republican Rep. J. Rogers Pope, who has sat through a fair number of these meetings over the years, said that previous governors delivered this chat as a realpolitik reminder about the pecking order in Louisiana. But the former educator said Edwards’ homily came across more like a teaching moment than a veiled threat.
In fact, state Rep. Rick Edmonds, the southeast Baton Rouge Republican who pretty much opposes everything Edwards does, described the meeting as “jovial.” True, Edwards was frank about the state’s financial situation — some things just won’t get funded — but the governor took more than hour and didn’t summarily dismiss any of the pitches, he said.
And this assessment came minutes after Edmonds scolded the House and Governmental Affairs Committee for the way his legislation had been rejected by the panel.
Baton Rouge Republican state Rep. Steve Carter, who heads the capital delegation, said much of the governor’s talk was explaining how he would rank construction projects, called capital outlay.
What Edwards told the capital region delegation — he was a member this time last year — that he would focus capital outlay dollars on finishing what’s been started, repairing existing state buildings — universities alone have a $2 billion deferred maintenance backlog — and on highway construction. There will be no new buildings.
That’s fine for Carter because the capital region’s top needs are all about easing traffic congestion.
And it’s OK for state Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville. As chairman of the House Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee, Havard juggles hundreds of requests for state money to pay for transportation projects. Having a little extra cash from capital outlay is welcome.
Havard’s hometown wants $1.6 million to repair the access road to the Mississippi River, and that’s at the top of his list, too. But he’s also looking for the state to kick in $30 million to finish up the Pecue Lane extension, some of which is in Edmonds’ Baton Rouge district.
One of the top-ranking projects on the capital region’s list is a $2.2 million overlay on La. 22 from Burnside to Sorrento, in the districts of state Reps. John Berthelot and Clay Schexnayder, both Gonzales Republicans who repeatedly voted against Edwards.
Back in a day when politics wasn’t so partisan, a governor supported a particular project in return for the legislator’s vote. The project would get stuffed into the capital outlay list — along with hundreds of others — to await funding.
Then the governor would sort through the projects and choose the handful that would get money, thereby allowing another opportunity to extract fealty from a legislator.
Imperfect on many levels, this process did allow the lawmaker to return home, point to House Bill 2, the capital outlay legislation, and then brag at Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners and chamber of commerce cocktail parties about his ability to deliver the goods.
“I always did that because I understood the process,” said state Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, where the capital outlay bill begins. Edwards probably gave up a chip — no more across-the-board promises — when he announced plans Thursday to trim extraneous projects and spend the limited dollars only on priorities, Thibaut said.
But Edwards, a Democratic governor over a majority GOP government, is reaching across the partisan divide by concentrating capital outlay on the project rather than the vote, Thibaut said.
“He keeps saying we have to work together,” Thibaut said. “I guess we have to work together or we should just go home.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com and is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB.