Much has been written about the important shifts in power relationships in the State Capitol, with a Democratic governor in his second term and newly assertive conservative Republicans in charge of the House and Senate. It’s truly a remarkable set of changes.
But one change is dramatic in terms of political power but little understood outside the State Capitol: construction projects.
These are vital to the political fortunes of members of the Legislature. Bringing home the bacon is a sure way to reelection. As Nikita Khrushchev remarked, politicians are the same the world over, they build bridges where there are no rivers.
In Louisiana, though, the construction budget — called the capital outlay bill, House Bill 2 — was a path to power less for legislators than for the governor.
He, or she in the case of the late Gov. Kathleen Blanco, held all the cards in the capital outlay process. Members would add projects to the overloaded HB2, far more than the money available to pay for the construction.
Then, the governor would be able to veto projects with constitutional line-item power. Quite often, of course, the vetoed projects would be those of legislators who didn’t toe the governor’s legislative line.
And then, the governor and legislative leaders would use their majority on the State Bond Commission to decide what projects would get money from state borrowing.
Legislators could claim that they’d put a project in capital outlay, then blame the governor if it did not get funded.
In a state where much power is formally vested in the governor, this informal process gave away power from the Legislature.
This year, enter a new Republican leadership, closely coordinating between House and Senate, and two chairmen of the capital outlay committees who changed things. Rep. Stuart Bishop of Lafayette and Sen. Bret Allain of Franklin said “no” many times to fellow members to pare down the list of projects.
The governor still has line-item veto but the power relationship is definitely changed because lawmakers — particularly, the GOP leaders — are making key decisions for the body.
In fact, and in a questionable decision, they decided not to spend all the money available in HB2. Construction projects are an obvious way to stimulate the economy this fall, so perhaps this was not wise right now.
And of course, the internal stress and strain of maintaining the new system over the coming years will tell if this is a lasting shift. As Khrushchev might have added, politicians don’t want to be told they can’t build their bridge, river or no.
Bishop told this newspaper’s Mark Ballard that he wants to focus state construction dollars on roads, bridges, airports, river ports, coastal restoration and clean water infrastructure. Sounds like good priorities to us. Will the new process stick?