When Gov. John Bel Edwards ignored the law recently, he jettisoned principle as well.
From the start of his term, Democrat Edwards has practiced executive overreach. When the state’s rules haven’t suited his political agenda, he has tried end runs around them.
That didn’t work in two separate instances involving state contracting. Once, he tried to mandate qualifications needed by contractors that weren't present under law. Another time, he tried to sidestep required contract approval by the attorney general, Republican Jeff Landry.
Landry intervened both times, and the judiciary slapped down Edwards on each occasion. But last month, Edwards may have gotten away with flouting a statute that he's followed in the past. This time, though, it didn't suit him.
State law requires the governor to deliver a budget to the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget 45 days prior to the start of the regular session. It must include “recommendations for appropriations from the state general fund and dedicated funds which shall not exceed the official forecast of the Revenue Estimating Conference.”
Therein lay Edwards’ problem. Consistent with staff recommendations, he wants the REC to raise its general fund revenue estimate, made last June, for next fiscal year by $90 million. The group has yet to approve fiscal year 2020 forecasts for dedicated fund revenues. Both actions need unanimous agreement.
But one panelist, GOP House Speaker Taylor Barras, has refused to go along with the general fund hike out of concerns (validated by the marketplace) over lower-than-expected oil prices and tepid economic activity. In person or by proxy, several times he vetoed attempts to change the June forecast. His "no" votes prevented making money available for many agencies’ FY 2020 budgets.
At the REC meeting almost a month ago, to enable realistic budgeting to occur, Barras offered a motion to approve only the setting of dedicated revenues. Edwards’ Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, his ally Republican Senate President John Alario, and economist James Richardson all rejected that.
This set the stage for the JLCB meeting late last month. In past years, when Edwards wanted to increase taxes to fund larger government, he gave that panel budgets using official REC estimates that forced cuts (with popular and/or vital programs put on the chopping block), which allowed Edwards to argue for more revenue.
His create-a-crisis strategy worked to bring higher taxes on Louisianans and an 11 percent increase in state-generated dollars spent. Using past official REC numbers facilitated that purpose, but the present numbers won’t let him make future spending commitments he sees as feathers in his cap for reelection.
So, Edwards reversed course. Rather than handing over another budget he can call unworkable and disavow, at the meeting Dardenne presented one that disregarded the law. Pretending the official forecast didn’t exist, Dardenne engaged in legal legerdemain that should put him on the radar of any future liberal president seeking a judicial activist for a U.S. Supreme Court nomination. He insisted the law allowed him to use his own revenue numbers to back what he submitted.
Keep in mind that Dardenne rejected Barras’ deal that could have given him official numbers close to what he wanted, thus removing any motive for constitutional freelancing. Instead, he and his boss cynically blame Barras for REC inaction.
When the rules facilitated Edwards’ agenda, he followed them; when they didn’t, he didn’t.
Unlike the other cases, Edwards will go unchallenged on this because there are no tangible policy consequences, win or lose. Still, it shows again how cavalierly Edwards treats legal requirements that constrain his agenda.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.