Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards aptly described the Louisiana Legislature’s inability to produce budgets on time as “an epic failure in leadership” — his.
Edwards has neither the humility nor penchant for self-deprecating humor to have aimed that remark at himself. Rather, he meant to impugn particularly the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives most involved in the budget process: House Speaker Taylor Barras and Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry. But Edwards bears the main responsibility for wrecking the process with his audacious attempt to supplant majority rule in favor of minority preferences.
Some legislators suspect Edwards planned all along a power play on the budget. With his ally, Republican Senate President John Alario having appointed Democratic state Sen. Eric LaFleur to helm the Finance Committee — despite the GOP holding nearly a two-to-one advantage in the chamber — Edwards had the pawns in place to proceed.
On May 4, the House passed its appropriations bill, which Edwards immediately fulminated against. He griped that it held back more than $200 million — or about two percent of total state dollars — which the chamber’s Republican majority wanted to put aside in case, as has happened 15 times in nine years, revenues fell below projections. Then Finance took a month to insert all forecast money, finally acting on June 1, the day after Edwards called a “precautionary” special session to immediately follow the regular session's conclusion on June 8.
This raised eyebrows, as in many past years far larger House/Senate differences never had prompted a governor to do that. At the time, according to one senior Republican, leadership told senators to pass the fully funded version as a starting point for negotiating. The Senate did so on June 4, with the House rejecting the proposal the next day.
Serving as the Republican House conference committee members, Barras and Henry had made two counteroffers by the session's last day: to sequester first $150 million, then only $100 million. But the Senate conferees — Alario, LaFleur, and another Democratic state senator, Greg Tarver — rejected putting in the bill a mandate to cut any amount, with Alario instead inducing the Senate to pass an unenforceable resolution asking nicely for Edwards to hang onto $50 million. Some GOP Finance members voted against it in protest.
These leaders said Edwards would not countenance any bill without full funding and thereafter stopped negotiating. Meanwhile, Edwards’ ally, state Rep. Walt Leger, tried last-minute parliamentary maneuvers in the House to short-circuit normal vetting that would force the Senate version to the floor, not giving representatives, including Barras and Henry, any time to review it. Passage under those conditions would have unwisely, if not recklessly, risked the people’s money. The session had to adjourn at this point.
A responsible governor, if offered 99 percent of what he wanted, would have made the deal. Instead, Edwards’ intransigence triggered this past week’s unnecessary and expensive special session to finish the job. At its start, he had hypocritically called the House, whose majority had advocated responsible budgeting and proper scrutinizing of the Democrat-hijacked Senate proposal, “dysfunctional” and “not serious.” He also complained, despite his own complicity and obstinacy, that the “House put party politics ahead of the needs of the state.”
When Louisiana craved leadership on this matter, Edwards instead provoked an unsuccessful budgetary coup. If the state’s citizens must tolerate his feckless dynamiting of the budget process, at the very least this sore loser shouldn’t insult their intelligence by evading responsibility for that through blaming others.