Remember all those lessons from grade school about the separation of powers? You know, the ones about how the executive and legislative branches of government are supposed to be independent and co-equal, part of a system of checks and balances designed to make sure that no one branch amasses too much control?
Then there are the real-life lessons from watching Louisiana government in action, one of which is this: Forget what you learned in school.
The Louisiana Legislature’s historical, habitual deference to the Governor’s Office isn’t explained in any textbook, yet it’s well-documented. Governor after governor has managed to install allies in key leadership positions and committee chairmanships and has been able, for the most part, to rely on those leaders to take care of his or her business.
That certainly includes Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose support for Chuck Kleckley as House Speaker — and more dramatically for old hand John Alario, a onetime legislative leader for Edwin Edwards who switched parties and loyalties, as Senate President — helped them win their jobs. They, in turn, have generally had Jindal’s back.
There are structural reasons for this phenomenon. One is that the Legislature is not set up along political party lines; the organizing principle that generally replaces Republicans versus Democrats is whether someone’s with the governor or part of the loyal opposition. Another is that the state constitution gives the governor tremendous powers, including the line-item veto for budget items and control over where capital projects land on the priority list. Given that, it pays for lawmakers to try to stay on any administration’s good side.
Then there’s the fact that legislators tend to just go along with this arrangement, until they’re pushed too far.
As the final legislative session of Jindal’s two terms approaches, it’s looking more and more like some lawmakers are reaching their limit.
That’s certainly the case on education, an area where, ironically, he’d once stacked the key committees with allies. That was only three years ago, when Jindal pushed through an ambitious wide-ranging package of bills with the help of House Education Committee Chairman Stephen Carter, Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel and majorities who were on the same philosophical page.
Fast-forward to this year, when Jindal plans to lobby for legislation to “get Common Core out of Louisiana,” as his official news release put it (or to “crush” it, as a missive from his political account said).
But while the governor has bowed to political pressure and retracted his onetime support for the new education standards, his allies in the self-styled reform movement — the very same people who so enthusiastically backed his 2012 package to increase accountability and choice and roll back teacher tenure — aren’t budging. Relations have broken down to such an extent that Jindal’s now talking about bypassing the education committees entirely, despite their obvious jurisdiction over matters pertaining to Common Core.
There’s also a whole lot of discomfort among lawmakers over Jindal’s plans to deal with the $1.6 billion budget hole. This stems from the governor’s refusal to consider solutions that would violate the strictest interpretation of the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax pledge — a self-imposed rule that precludes re-examining a number of runaway tax exemptions — and his apparent willingness to make draconian cuts to higher education, health care and other areas.
The budget, though, presents a more complicated equation for legislators, and that’s largely Jindal’s doing as well. Unlike his storm-the-barricades approach to Common Core, the governor is maneuvering to basically dump this problem on the Legislature. He’s offered a few convoluted options that don’t seem to have a lot of support, including repealing much of the state rebate for inventory taxes paid to parishes. But his overall message seems to be that it’s up to lawmakers to make the really wrenching choices, just months before many of them face reelection.
Still, many lawmakers I know have long bristled at the suggestion that they’re overly deferential to the administration. They’re about to get a chance to prove otherwise.
We’ll see if they take it.