Whether considered a hostage-taker or bumbler on the basis of statements he made leading up to a special legislative session to address a current-year budget deficit, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards showed enormous political ineptitude.
Prior to a prime-time statewide televised speech outlining his ideas for the session, Edwards grabbed Taylor Opportunity Program for Students recipients and threatened their academic lives unless the public paid a ransom in tax increases. He said the state would cut off money immediately that reimburses institutions paying out these awards of free tuition for qualifiers, making many of them believe schools would boot them from classrooms.
Perhaps because of the almost instant negative reaction, Edwards backed down only hours later, saying schools would get 80 percent of what remained to cover the rest of the year, so higher education would have to make up just a fifth of the amount from the original menacing note. Undeterred by this misstep, he then proceeded to grab some more political pawns to terrorize.
During his speech, Edwards alleged that failure to foist onto the public new large tax hikes could cause higher education to shut down before current terms ended, which would negate students’ academic progress and make state institutions liable to lose accreditation. Not only did he put students up against the wall, but he also made their athletic programs join them, trading coercion for farce by explicitly promising an end to Louisiana college football unless the state followed his tax-and-spend agenda.
Joining Louisianans in response, sports reporters, not exactly renowned for their understanding of and wisdom about politics but who do know something about college athletics, lampooned Edwards nationwide for the remark and questioned his political intelligence and real motivations. At a basic level, people understand that leaders who choose the most drastic policy options when far less harmful ones exist do so not out of leadership for the state’s good but out of spitefulness to pursue an ideological agenda.
That’s certainly the case in this instance. If, as Edwards and Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo irresponsibly claimed, without big tax increases institutions would run out of money to hold classes by April 30, higher education could act as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, starting now with short furloughs and select service reductions to stretch financing for the short period needed to finish terms. Instead, in service of an extortion racket, Edwards and Rallo would rather scorch the state’s college landscape.
Not content to scramble out of the public relations hole he had dug, Edwards redoubled his shoveling. When Republican leaders who run the Legislature said they preferred many more spending cuts than revenue enhancements to solve this year’s deficit, Edwards said he would oppose any cuts more than about 17 percent of this year’s total shortfall.
So if in two weeks the Legislature sends Edwards bills short on tax hikes but long on cuts distributed across state government that cause no draconian reductions anywhere, does he really plan on vetoing these and inflicting as much pain as he can onto the higher education and health care he campaigned to protect? Either he swallows his pride by signing into law a plan he insisted could not work, or he makes a last stand for big government by vetoing such bills. That would outrage the public by keeping alive the doomsday scenario he could have prevented.
By demonstrating such undying loyalty to tax increases, Edwards has drawn a line in the sand that, absent GOP spinelessness, guarantees him a significant political defeat.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches classes on 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 Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.