One sign that partisanship has poisoned Washington, D.C., is that matters that once drew across-the-board support now create standstills, or standoffs.
Some of those matters involve policy, things like whether the modest federal minimum wage should be increased every so often.
Some are all about power. The most obvious example here is the increasingly contentious process for U.S. Supreme Court — that is, when Senate leaders even acknowledge that a nominee has a right to be considered. To see how old agreements have deteriorated, look no farther than U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to grant the well-regarded Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s last high court nominee, a hearing.
And one indication that at least some people who work in Baton Rouge are following Washington’s lead happened at last week’s Revenue Estimating Conference and came courtesy of a politician who has spent the last few years stoking the party divide in the Legislature.
State Rep. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican, insisted he was acting responsibly by refusing to go along with independent economists’ estimates of how much money the state can expect for the rest of the current fiscal year and the next one. And indeed, there was the germ of a real concern in his otherwise vague objection, a worry that the recent drop in oil prices could cut into the state’s expected income.
But by torpedoing the required unanimous vote by the conference’s four members — a designee of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, in this case Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne; Senate President John Alario and LSU economist Jim Richardson are the others — Henry essentially ignored the experts and introduced his usual disruptive legislative tactics into a new arena.
Practically, that means that the state can’t spend the $43 million in newly recognized money on needs the Legislature has already outlined, with corrections, sheriffs and juvenile justice as the biggest beneficiaries. As for next year, the unrecognized but predicted revenue, as of now, can’t go toward the teacher pay raise that both parties say they support.
This isn’t just about Republicans and Democrats. Dardenne is a Republican former lieutenant governor, secretary of state and state senator, and Alario switched to the GOP years ago. Both reacted furiously to what Edwards later labeled an “unprecedented political ploy.”
It’s about a particular brand of Republicanism, the kind embraced by McConnell and quite a few other Washington politicians and, increasingly, those in Baton Rouge. The kind that led to the long, unproductive legislative debate over finally settling the fiscal cliff, a fight in which Henry and his allies played a prominent role. The kind that focuses on claiming advantage above all.
Ironically, it was Henry’s pugnacity that cost him the chance to be House Speaker three years ago, after the GOP-majority majority House rejected Edwards’ attempt to install a Democrat, Walt Leger III. A group of moderate Republicans balked at Henry’s bid, and the group settled on a compromise candidate, a less confrontational former Democrat named Taylor Barras. Henry’s consolation prize was the Appropriations Committee chairmanship and a friendly committee membership.
Still, there were many times during the years lawmakers struggled to come up enough revenue to prevent deep service cuts when the Henry faction seemed to be calling the shots and picking needless fights with the administration.
It’s usually Barras, not Henry, who sits on the Revenue Estimating Conference and votes to recognize the money so that it can be allocated. He said he had a business conflict that day — which Edwards questioned — and Henry showed up in his place. In a later interview with The Associated Press, Barras backed Henry’s stance, but it’s hard to envision the genteel banker walking into that room and picking that fight.
In fact, the REC is specifically designed to give lawmakers and administrations an agreed-upon starting point, to take some of the politics out of the budgeting process. Others have questioned the numbers before, particularly during the years when estimates routinely fell short and the state had to make unpopular mid-year cuts, but what happened last week was something new.
Actually, it’s more an extension of a trend that’s been developing for some time all over the country, in which even traditions and institutions that used to transcend party fights are being weaponized. The revenue forecasting process is just one more front.