Incompetence or part of the permanent campaign? Maybe a bit of both prompted Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to try turning lemons into lemonade.
Louisiana avoided an administrative crisis when earlier this month the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget approved contracts worth $15.4 billion. This panel of lawmakers from both Republican-led chambers must have a majority of each delegation sign off on any large-dollar agreements lasting fewer than three years, in this case to pay private-sector managed care companies to run Medicaid for most of 2018 and 2019. Failure to win approval before year’s end would have thrown the health care program into chaos.
Assent came on the fourth try. More than two months ago, Republican House committee members voted down the extensions and asked that the new documents include more explicit oversight protections. While admitting such phrasing was helpful, Edwards dug in his heels, saying current law covered their concerns, and so he would not make the requested modifications. Although Senate Republicans acquiesced to that, the House contingent continued to refuse its consent.
After two more failed attempts, Edwards declared Nov. 20 he would issue an emergency rule making the contracts a reality without legislative input. Even though he never did so, his stated intent to stretch law and regulation into unrecognizableness sufficiently worried the committee’s Senate members that they and other Republican senators asked Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry’s office to advise them on the issue.
Landry’s office issued a Dec. 8 letter stating Edwards had created his own emergency when, instead of formulating new contracts of at least three years duration, he wanted to extend existing ones at such a late date without gaining legislative acceptance. Moreover, it argued use of emergency rule-making in this situation would be an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the executive branch.
Any doubt about the legal status of Edwards’ move should have raised serious concerns. What health care provider in its right mind would want to gamble on committing resources to an agreement that the courts reasonably could void? A court ruling against the contracts would put the state in the very bind Edwards alleged he wanted to avoid.
Edwards’ executive counsel Matthew Block dismissed that view, even though in almost every dispute between them courts have agreed with Landry’s arguments over Block’s. But less than a week later, the Edwards administration inserted most of what the House GOP leaders wanted, and the subtly revised instruments sailed through the committee at its next meeting.
The aftermath begs many questions. If the desired changes seemed so minor and nondisruptive, as it would appear since they made their way so seamlessly into the approved versions, why did Edwards fight them tooth-and-nail rather than concede immediately? If these alterations were unneeded and Block was so sure of his legal ground, why did Edwards capitulate after such a long struggle? Most importantly, why did he prefer extensions over new deals?
It was a crisis solely of Edwards’ making. By starting months ago to develop new contracts, he would have avoided any conflict with legislators. Further, the resulting bids could have produced lower costs, saving taxpayer dollars. But, as Department of Health officials admitted in legislative hearings earlier this year, they have put anything other than Medicaid expansion on the back burner, which led to a missed opportunity to negotiate better terms between the state and the managed-care companies overseeing Medicaid payments.
Edwards tried to steer the narrative away from his own agency’s inattentiveness by provoking a political dispute that gave him some political advantage in the budget committee. Faced with simple demands, he needlessly bickered to sustain an impasse, allowing him to present an image of a responsible policymaker fighting against politicized obstructionists.
That’s great campaigning. But it’s lousy governance.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.