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Edwards faces reality with capital outlay pledge

So Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to change the way the state has dealt with capital outlay projects, does he? We’ll see if this doesn’t end up part a bow to reality, part wishful thinking, and whether the idea ends up on the scrap heap.

Traditionally, when the Legislature sends its laundry list to the State Bond Commission in the capital outlay bill (and some other items could wind up in the general appropriations bill or even elsewhere), that instrument contains a larger request for dollars than the state’s bonding capacity permits. Then the SBC must decide which projects to fund, and the governor historically has had outsized influence in this process because of the panel’s composition – the treasurer (chairman), governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, commissioner of administration, leaders of both legislative chambers, committee chairmen of the two “money” committees in each chamber, and one other legislator from each chamber, or representatives of any of these individuals. As in the past the governor had considerable informal input into the process of selection of these legislators to their posts and usually the other minor state executives came from the same party as he, therefore he could command majorities on it.

Nonrecursivity if not incest marked this relationship. In part, he wielded this influence because of the governor’s line item veto power; he could use that against projects favored by a legislator in exchange for support for his initiatives before they even got to the SBC without fear of the Legislature overriding those (it never has). Thus, governors backed legislative allies into key positions by telling them their items would survive, thereby earning them spots on the SBC where they and the governor (and his employee the commissioner) would roll plenty of logs so that everybody’s projects got the green light. Note that acquiescence by the Legislature in not only stuffing too many requests into the bill but also then not rebelling against this custom made it work.

But Edwards now finds himself in a weaker position than any governor since the start of the 20th century, with possibly only former Gov. Dave Treen matching this weakness. Republican Treasurer John Kennedy has made no secret of his opposition to Edwards’ tax-and-spend philosophy, and Republican Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry’s actions during his term in Congress gives every indication that, while he has said nothing officially about Edwards’ fiscal policies, he probably agrees with Kennedy. Further, Edwards backed a rival to Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras and so no allegiance exists between the pair, with the speaker having appointed the other three House members on the commission.

That’s likely six votes against Edwards already when interests diverge. Throw in the other two Republican minor executives and he may not even have a working majority on the commission (Sen. Pres. John Alario likely remains loyal along with his three picks, despite his being from the GOP). Thus, given these dynamics, it makes sense when Edwards now claims he plans to abandon the strategy of promising individual projects by saying he no longer wants to see any proposed.

Perhaps he articulates this as a matter of practicality, knowing with his bargaining power far diminished he will gather more political capital by declaring the end of the practice in favor of funding only items with a broader impact than in possibly suffering defeats over specific and smaller capital outlay requests. Unfortunately for him, it seems Alario will test him, who has said he intends to send forward enough local projects to reach the ceiling of their composing 25 percent of the total capital outlay cost despite Edwards’ plan.

In the face of that, whether Edwards will maintain his stated resolve seems doubtful. Already the governor has reneged on a campaign pledge not to use for operating expenses money (aside from the state’s heavily-restricted “savings” account) that does not come from a recurring source when he balanced the imperiled current fiscal year budget, in supporting use of lawsuit proceeds and bond refinancing to close the deficit (a matter for the SBC that Kennedy cast the sole vote against). Given already he has found it difficult to steer the Legislature, particularly the House, he may fall back on the tradeoff strategy despite his words now.

But with his hold on the SBC tenuous at best, that may not work well. This would provide another dunking of Edwards into the cold water of political reality, that his desire to govern from the hard left in a center-right state will not work and that until he moves substantially towards the political center he should not expect any favors from the Republicans who control every other meaningful lever of power in state government.

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