Louisiana's ugly budget outlook grows grimmer; state in ‘its own recession,’ economist says _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Governor John Bel Edwards speaks during a forum hosted by Louisiana Association of Educators -- teachers and other public school employees sounding off on their education needs.

Gov. John Bel Edwards had clearly hoped that things would go differently. That the state’s politicians would give one another’s ideas a fair, open-minded hearing. That the Republican-dominated Legislature and Democratic administration — both of which can fairly claim popular support — would cling to Louisiana’s historically nonpartisan ways, rather than fall into a Washington-style war. That somehow, despite the hard choices that lie ahead, everyone would find a way to get along.

A month into Edwards’ tenure, though, this much is plain to see: This is no job for Gov. Nice Guy.

Relations between Edwards and a Republican House majority that’s clearly feeling its oats remain superficially cordial. The governor was even greeted with a standing ovation at this week’s GOP legislative retreat, according to LaPolitics Weekly’s Jeremy Alford.

He shouldn’t read too much into that, based on the maneuvering so far.

Edwards can expect relatively smooth sailing in the upper chamber, where Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, has doled out committee assignments with an eye toward bolstering the governor’s chances to get his way.

But Edwards has already faced two major setbacks in the House, where the tax measures the governor hopes to pass to deal with a daunting budget hole must originate.

On Inauguration Day, members rejected his choice for House speaker, Democrat Walt Leger, of New Orleans. They instead elected a little-known Republican named Taylor Barras, of New Iberia, a compromise candidate who emerged after more openly partisan Republican Cameron Henry, of Metairie, couldn’t muster a majority.

Then, last week, Barras released a long-awaited list of committee assignments, cobbled together with Henry’s help, that concentrates power in the hands of those who are least likely to see things Edwards’ way.

That wasn’t all. Also last week, Edwards had to delay a measure to pursue one of his main priorities, Medicaid expansion, when it appeared he might not be able to get it through a joint House/Senate committee that Barras had heavily stacked with Republicans. The administration can and did accept the largely federally-funded expansion on its own, a reversal from ex-Gov. Bobby Jindal’s policy, and is trying to move quickly to insure some 300,000 working poor Louisianans. It hopes to hire 248 Department of Health and Hospitals employees to sign up all those new patients, but the delay suggests Edwards might have trouble getting even that approved.

What can a governor do under such circumstances? Well, there’s plenty.

Louisiana’s governorship comes with some major built-in powers, and the savviest governors know how to use them.

Most immediately, he can narrowly tailor the call for the special session that’s just over a week away. As Alford reports, Republican lawmakers are asking Edwards to give them a broader array of options, including some ambitious ideas to restructure government.

“We urge you to open the special session call to include reforms to Medicaid, the state pension systems, employee health care, sentencing and corrections, institutional reorganization, board and agency consolidations, and other areas that require strategic reform to deliver high-quality services at the most effective cost to the taxpayer,” Alford quotes from a draft letter to the governor.

All those conversations should happen, but having them in a session that will likely run less than a month, one that should necessarily be devoted to addressing immediate funding shortfalls of $750 million for this year and $1.9 billion for next, sounds more like an effort to head off the tax increases that Edwards is reluctantly seeking than to really solve problems.

Edwards has the power to set the terms of this debate, and he should take it.

In the longer term, the governor controls other levers too. He still dominates the capital outlay process, for example, although there surely will be an effort to bring that under legislative control as well. And he always has the option that President Barack Obama often takes when confronted with an obstinate Congress: focus on things the administration can do without legislative approval.

The thing to watch now is how Edwards chooses to marshal the power he has — and whether this nice guy is also enough of a cold-hearted realist to fully use it.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.