During the 2016 regular session, in the service of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Louisiana Senate earned its sobriquet as the “graveyard of reform.” But on the issue of state spending, the House of Representatives may have the last laugh at this pair’s expense after the second special session of the year.
While nominally controlled by Republicans, the upper chamber in reality follows Edwards’ dictates. A few Republicans-in-name-only, guided by political chameleon and state Senate President John Alario, joined with Senate Democrats and provided the governor cover on several key votes this year, such as by sidelining a bill that would have prohibited local law enforcement agencies from not following federal law dealing with the arrests of those living in or entering the country illegally.
By blocking House bills that expressed the will of Louisiana’s center-right majority but were opposed by Edwards and his allies on the state’s political left, these RINOs helped him avoid embarrassing vetoes that might have satisfied his liberal base but alienated voters he needs to get reelected.
Although several RINOs also roam the savannahs of the Republican-led House, the size of its conservative majority keeps them in check. This has allowed the lower chamber to endorse measures breaking free of the traditional get-along-go-along attitude too prevalent in the Senate and embraced by Edwards that grows government. It’s the idea that government exists primarily to collect resources and redistribute them to legislators’ districts and special-interest allies.
Never mind that oversized government has brought Louisianians a legacy of economic underachievement, educational mediocrity, and reduced quality of life. Fortunately, the House majority has evolved away from this legacy, disrupting the comfortable consensus that has sold the state down the river for decades. Even so, the House continues to be frustrated by the Senate, with Edwards as its backstop.
Yet the House’s moment has arrived, courtesy of the Louisiana Constitution, which mandates that revenue-raising measures begin in the lower chamber. To prevent restraint of state government’s continued growth, Edwards needs more tax increases, and in the regular session, he had to settle for a budget he claims is $450 million short.
He and the Senate also oppose House special session plans to redirect spending. The House’s leadership wants to siphon money from an array of dedicated sources tied to relatively minor programs and transfer it to major items — such as charity hospitals, higher education and TOPS — that Edwards, with the Senate backing him, in order to leverage tax increases left underfunded.
So if the House just says no to substantial tax increases and passes bills shifting significant amounts of spending, that puts the Senate and Edwards in an untenable position. If the Senate rejects or he vetoes such supplemental appropriations, House leaders can argue that they tried to make smaller reductions across a number of programs to shore up spending on things considered more important, and Edwards can concede he would rather see what he called “critical services” cut than adjust spending of lesser importance. Hint: He doesn’t win that argument, especially with public opinion markedly preferring less spending over more tax hikes.
Worse for him, RINOs such as Edwards’ law school buddy, freshman state Sen. Ryan Gatti, will probably vote for this kind of budget restraint, terrified at the reaction of constituents already displeased by tax increases during the first special session. Edwards would be forced to either veto House reforms — or go along and suffer a humiliating defeat of his agenda.
Either way, the House GOP would gain a big victory for reform in forcing some right-sizing of state government. Let’s hope its members have the courage to rise to the occasion.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Email him at email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.