The 2016 Legislature launched itself on a new path, with the state House rejecting the governor’s nominee for speaker and instead selecting its own leader from the ranks of the majority Republican Party.
As members are learning, even those who are among the most party-oriented in the Legislature, with power comes responsibility for hard choices.
Our State Capitol has a tradition of nonpartisan leadership. The governor has had sway over legislative positions and, typically, over much of the content of legislation eventually adopted. That way of doing business is changing, but it is a change — and one where members of the House, just as much as new Gov. John Bel Edwards, are probably feeling their way along.
That makes the early maneuvers by the House leadership particularly interesting during the special session ending today.
The session’s focus was on the budget, with the GOP in both chambers on the defensive. The governor of their party, Bobby Jindal, left a giant financial mess; defending that record, even for members who voted for Jindal’s policies, was a nonstarter politically. Arguments against tax increases, the go-to party line of the Republicans, fell flat in the face of giant budget deficits.
Ultimately, there was no choice for most legislators, of both parties, but to support tax bills to deal with the gaping hole in the current year’s budget.
At the same time, the GOP sought early on to emphasize that it was also pushing budget cuts, but that initiative also fell somewhat flat.
For the first time, the members of the House Appropriations Committee proposed a cut in the Minimum Foundation Program, the basic state-local aid formula for public schools.
There’s no law against cutting the MFP but it’s never been done, and the Appropriations members found out that it was not politically palatable. The MFP cut was ditched before the budget cut bill ever got to a vote in the full House.
That was about half the budget cuts proposed by the committee, so to make the numbers look credible the appropriators switched the $44 million cut in the MFP to the separate budget of the Department of Education.
Problem is, that cut would have essentially shut down the department, threatening the accountability testing and some aid to private schools. The House approved the cuts bill but the Senate balked, rightly, in our view.
It was an unwise cut in the first place, and that is one of the lessons of the special session that is obscured by the larger budget and tax debate.
The budget cuts pushed by the GOP were tokens compared with the disaster left by the Jindal administration. A party that is so connected in the public mind with the Jindal mess would have been wiser to pick its fights more carefully.
Clearly, a bill associated with cuts in public schools was not one that the GOP’s own rank-and-file in the House were willing to bring to a vote. And Edwards added fuel to the fire during the tax debates by suggesting publicly that it’s hard to negotiate with a House GOP that does not know its own mind.
We don’t know the shape of things to come, but how decisions are made in the free-wheeling environment of the new House is clearly in flux this year.