Budget battle threatens to make Edwards irrelevant
As long as the Louisiana House of Representatives Republican majority holds the line on tax increases for next fiscal year, they will have teed up Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards for a humiliating defeat and seized control of the governing agenda at least through 2019.
Having previously dispatched into ignominy Edwards’ entire fiscal package, last week the chamber sent to the Senate HB 1, the general appropriations bill. It contained $677 million fewer than Edwards wanted, who will need to hike taxes to come close to bridging that gap. This represents $237 million fewer spent than the current fiscal year, which House leaders call a “standstill budget” that includes no growth in overall spending plus intentionally holding back 2.5 percent from this year’s as a buffer in case revenue projections disappoint.
Conditions came with the measure. The bills makes off-limits cutting programs that aid people with disabilities, which actually received a small increase, and if as part of a response to the lower spending public-private partner hospitals receive a haircut, the shearing cannot single out any facility disproportionately. It also orders that cuts must first arrive in the form of scrapping vacant job openings and disallows pay raises for state employees on the basis of performance. Otherwise, the bill gives few specific directions.
This left Edwards and his Administration fuming, with both him and his Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne hypocritically complaining that the House should spell out where it wanted cuts – a fraudulent outrage because both of them when in the Legislature on numerous occasions voted for budgets chock full of “the commissioner of administration is hereby authorized and directed to adjust the means of financing in this agency by reducing the appropriation” statements that did not spell out itemized reductions. Edwards’ whining also betrayed a part of his legislative package, which supported the idea of the buffer.
Naturally they would rant about this, because the GOP House leadership adroitly boxed Edwards into a corner. If the House will not consider any meaningful tax increases for this upcoming year – it appears more open to some for fiscal year 2019 when a one percent sales tax expires – he only can hope the Senate will raid accounts into which dedicated funding flows have created adequate surpluses. But he pledged not to do when running for office by declaring he would engage in “honest” budgeting.
So, if rattling the cushions doesn’t produce anything meaningful, Edwards makes the cuts, and takes all of the political responsibility for it. This includes reversing the one major programmatic increase in the House budget, to pay for fully the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars. Taking anything from that tags him as the guy making families pay more for college. That’s what burns him up, finding himself politically maneuvered into becoming the fall guy by leaving the cuts on him.
And what if the Senate abrogates its constitutional duty by sending over a budget in deficit and/or won’t agree to the House’s? Then the House can adjourn, daring Edwards to call a special session because the state does not have the authority to spend money for long after the beginning of the new fiscal year Jul. 1. But if he seeks to force a legislative solution to his liking and the House holds firm, then he will draw the blame for shutting down state government (as it will have produced a budget, voters won’t fault the House and the Senate will cave in to that to avoid the unfavorable publicity).
Only if House Republicans break ranks can Edwards escape this fate, and that seems unlikely. Remarkably, every House GOP member, plus a Democrat and two independents, backed the budget, including even the party’s several allies of Edwards. That’s because, with a constitutional two-thirds requirement to raise taxes, they realize the impossibility of a tax hike and will not throw away political capital on a sure loss.
Having to sign a budget with cuts of this magnitude essentially pushes Edwards to the sidelines for the next two years of policy-making, if not casting him into irrelevancy and assuring his tenure lasts but one term. Yet he can avoid the demise of his influence by instituting policy changes to induce greater government efficiency that frees resources to ameliorate cuts, such as to reform spending on programs for the disabled that moves away from institutionalization and towards home- and community-based solutions. This way, he can pose as bringing about smarter government while shifting money to mitigate cuts he calls harmful.
Either way, by having it ripped from his grasp or his meekly handing it over, Edwards loses control of policy-making, a situation in recent Louisiana politics never seen before with the possible exception of the last couple of years of the former Gov. Buddy Roemer Administration. Notably, Roemer didn’t win reelection.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 11:00