My, what a difference a couple of years can make for Democrats in Louisiana’s House of Representatives, for whom the litmus test for legislation depends largely on whether their party occupies the Governor’s Mansion.
Last week, when no-party state Rep. Dee Richard stumped for his House Bill 74 in front of the House Appropriations Committee, he should have had no reason to expect any difficulty in advancing the bill. Originally, it would have required the state to spend 15 percent less next fiscal year on a large set of public contracts, echoing similar bills that easily passed out of the committee and chamber in previous years with unanimous support from Democrats. The 2014 version reached former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk, where he vetoed the bill.
Jindal objected to the bill for good reason. It hamstrings executive discretion, may cause contractors to walk away and thus induce an expensive search process or litigation along with service disruption, and it absolves legislators from performing their jobs. They could make these cuts themselves through the appropriations process. His administration’s representatives always testified against the bills.
In 2014, questioning from representatives, including by state Reps. James Armes and Pat Smith, largely revolved around technical points and information. As they had in previous years, Armes and Smith, along with fellow Democrat state Rep. Walt Leger, voted to pass the bill without objection, as did all present committee Democrats. On the House floor, all committee Democrats present repeated their approval, joined by their partisan colleagues.
But last week, Armes, Smith and Leger, who remain on the committee, aggressively questioned Richard on the bill, using the same arguments the Jindal administration employed to criticize it. Members of the new John Bel Edwards administration who testified also tried to discourage supporting the bill in its subsequently amended version by saying it would decimate some existing contracts.
This change would have tied the amount cut from the contracts to the shortfall in the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or about $183 million taken from an estimated eligible contract range of $5 billion to $6 billion.
Democrats and administration officials protested this could put health care at risk because a lot of the spending on contracts deals with help for the sick. But Republican state Rep. Tony Bacala pointed out that the Edwards administration already had proposed large cuts to contracts for charity hospital functions and chastised it for dragging its feet in identifying contract savings requested months previously.
While almost all Republicans who were present voted for the amended bill, all committee Democrats voted against it. So what’s the difference between now and past years?
The fact that Republican Jindal left the scene, replaced by Democrat Edwards.
With Jindal in office, Democrats knew he would veto this kind of bill. By supporting it, they wanted to make themselves look willing and Jindal unwilling to tighten the budgetary belt, even as he reduced state spending. But with Edwards on the Capitol’s fourth floor, Democrats now see this bill as a threat to their freedom to sustain a bloated government and pay for it with more taxes.
Edwards, who voted for every earlier incarnation of HB74, would suffer political embarrassment were it to reach his desk. His probable veto would reveal his party’s hypocrisy. He and Democrats must hope it never gets that far.
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. Write to him at email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.