It might not have always looked that way during the past six months of pitched battles with lawmakers over taxes, spending, and the separation of powers, but there’s a lot that Louisiana governors can do without having to consult the Legislature at all.
Even as Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislative leaders, particularly in the more rebellious House, are processing what Edwards called the “learning experience” of three consecutive legislative sessions, the governor is finding ways to make a mark by acting on his own.
Other than raising some $1.5 billion in new revenue — not as much as he sought but enough to avert catastrophic contingencies such as the closure of some of the state’s safety-net hospitals — Edwards’ most dramatic accomplishment so far is the rollout of the Medicaid expansion that former Gov. Bobby Jindal had rejected on starkly ideological grounds.
This is no small deal. By expanding health insurance access to the 225,900 working poor Louisianans who’d signed up as of last week and perhaps ultimately to as many as 375,000 clients, Edwards kept a campaign promise.
Because expansion is mostly federally funded under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, he carved nearly $200 million off the budget deficit.
And when legislators balked at appropriating new money for the daunting task of signing up all those patients, the Edwards administration got creative and came up with innovative enrollment methods. One idea, to make sign-up easy for more than 105,000 recipients of federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, is drawing national notice as a model other states might use.
Edwards is flexing his muscle in other areas as well.
Even as lawmakers mostly opted to wait till next year to start tackling structural budget challenges, Edwards issued an executive order aimed at unilaterally reforming one of the state’s many business tax giveaways. He ordered the Board of Commerce and Industry to apply tighter scrutiny to applicants for a local tax break for manufacturers with existing facilities. The new requirement demands that applicants tie the exemption to job creation or retention.
Beyond that, Edwards is in the process of renegotiating state contracts with the private partners that run the state’s safety net hospitals. He’s working behind the scenes to bring oil and gas companies to the table, in the apparent hope of coming up with a global settlement that would provide money for coastal restoration.
And he’s still deciding how aggressively to use his veto power.
Possible targets include an amendment to a supplemental budget bill that front-loads limited state funding for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. After appropriating enough money to pay just 70 percent of the popular TOPS scholarships, conservative House members successfully pushed to fully fund the program for the fall semester, leaving students on the hook for more than half their tuition come spring. Edwards and his allies objected, arguing the amendment may be unconstitutional, that it amounts to dishonest budgeting and that it doesn’t jibe with how other financial aid is awarded.
The governor also could opt to use his line-item veto power to retaliate against lawmakers who blocked his agenda. The obvious place to look here is the capital outlay budget, which is loaded with voter-pleasing projects in individual lawmakers’ districts.
In fact, if Edwards decides to emulate fellow Democrat Obama and try to work around a resistant legislative branch, Louisiana’s powerful governorship gives him plenty of avenues, even if he can expect pushback from politically ambitious Republicans such as Treasurer John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Obama’s been brushed back on occasion, too, most recently by the U.S. Supreme Court on immigration. But he’s also racked up some big-time policy changes without having to wait for Congress to act.
Politically and temperamentally, Edwards, who cut his teeth in the Legislature, seems to prefer cooperation over confrontation.
But he’s also seen during these six brutal months that playing Gov. Nice Guy is only going to get him so far.