It’s almost time for Louisiana lawmakers to return to Baton Rouge for the annual legislative session, so let the budget games begin.
I’m kidding, of course. The games never stopped.
That’s kind of ironic, given that the crisis that hung over much of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ term has finally ended. It took three years and 10 regular and special sessions for the GOP-majority Legislature and the Democratic governor to stabilize revenue and end the constant threat of deep cuts to state services. They wound up choosing the path of least resistance, raising sales taxes, rather than taking on the grand restructuring that many said they supported. Still, it was enough to put the state on solid financial footing.
But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s also intentional. The impression that there’s still some sort of major meltdown going on is being perpetuated by the usual suspects in the House leadership, and it’s far less about state spending than about politics.
At the root of the current confusion is House Speaker Taylor Barras’ refusal to recognize estimated state revenue, despite the fact that he serves on a panel set up to do just that. By virtue of his post, Barras has one of four votes on the Revenue Estimating Conference, which takes projections from independent economists and approves them so that the money can be allocated.
The catch is that the vote must be unanimous. But while Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Senate President John Alario (both, like Barras, Republicans) and LSU economist Jim Richardson cast their usual “yes” votes, Barras decided to hold out and hang the whole process up. His stated reasoning — that he doesn’t trust the numbers — is thin. As for his motivation, only he knows, but it sure looks like he’s out to cause chaos.
The next move was the governor’s. He had two choices: to offer a budget that doesn’t include money the state has every expectation of getting, or offer an alternate aspirational plan that does. He went with the latter, which is, on one hand, a further departure from the norms, but on the other a perfectly understandable counterpunch. So when certain Republicans are accusing Edwards of creating a “constitutional crisis,” as Attorney General Jeff Landry recently did, this is what they’re talking about.
So now there are multiple versions of the budget floating around, including one introduced by Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a close Barras ally. He, like Edwards, would fund the teacher pay raise that’s expected to be a centerpiece of the session, although his plan comes in lower in other areas. And he, as he’s done before, has filmed an internet video casting misleading aspersions on Edwards. Edwards didn’t submit an official budget based on already recognized revenue, Henry claimed, because “he decided not to make those tough decisions this year.”
In some sense, this all shouldn’t add up to much. The Legislature will pass the budget it wants anyway, just as Congress does in Washington. Up there, there isn’t even much pretense that the executive branch’s proposed spending plan is the starting point, and maybe that’s where Louisiana is anyway.
But if the Legislature goes its own way, it owns the results, at a time when at least some leaders would rather make the story all about the governor.
It is an election year, after all, and the people who want Edwards gone seem to think that the best argument against him is that he’s an out-of-control tax and spender.
Of course, everything he’s done — including the sales tax he signed — required approval from the Legislature. Edwards claims credit for stabilizing the budget and finally putting it in a position to invest in teachers and other needs, including higher education. House leaders can quibble with his priorities, but they could also fairly take some of that credit.
They probably would, if that were the game they’re playing. Which it definitely isn’t.