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Parochial view puts Louisiana between rock, hard place

Sometimes, our elected officials speak unusually candidly. The state legislative delegation from around Opelousas for whatever reason did so at the conclusion of their latest special session, with one especially thought-provoking statement.

No, it wasn’t state Sen. Don Cravins’ remarkable admission that, assessing the session, “Some saw it an opportunity to push their own agenda and to get a mayor of their liking elected in New Orleans.” We already know that Cravins and his Democrat colleagues in the Legislature and in the executive branch weakened ballot security and needlessly committed state money to trying to get Democrats elected in Orleans Parish.

Rather, it was his son state Rep. Don Cravins’ observation that because the state is broke and Gov. Kathleen Blanco did not have cash to promise to legislators for pet projects, it made it hard for the governor to provide leadership. As if he were a zoologist commenting upon animals and their keeper, he noted, “There was nothing to calm them down, so nothing got done until the last few days, and then only some watered-down versions of what she wanted.”

This musing highlights a common misunderstanding people often have about the powers of Louisiana’s governor. Reviewing her formal powers, she would have to rank at best average among American governors (as political scientists do from time to time in published comparative research about American state governors). But it is the exercise of informal powers that can magnify the clout of this state’s governor.

Cravins alluded to one such application was the way in which budgeting, especially capital budgeting, is done in this state. Capital projects have their own separate budget the items of which that will get any funding pretty much depends upon the governor’s preferences. Further, the governor has a line item veto power that could excise any such item that for whatever reason she didn’t like.

That power also extends to the regular budget which occasionally has capital projects but also other expenditures tailored to local legislative districts. Keep in mind that a line item veto never had been overridden by the Legislature in the modern era.

Before feeling sorry for the Legislature, understand that it did this to itself. Legally, it could change the way capital budgeting gets done and could assert its override power if it wanted. But it doesn’t. As it is, much of the informal power a Louisiana governor has could be negated by simple legislative assertion.

If it did act that way, this would increase the difficulty level of a governor trying to lead an agenda through the Legislature. So that body sacrifices power for the comfort of being directed. But this reveals a disturbing condition of the relationship.

When Cravins remarks that because there is little money for the governor to hang over legislators’ heads to induce them to behave a certain way, it begs the question of why such a wacky system exists in the first place, one that has a decidedly parochial emphasis that gives short shrift to a comprehensive, statewide view that creates priorities on that basis. A thin wallet by necessity forces more of that kind of focus on policy-making, yet Cravins testifies that condition precisely makes that kind of leadership more difficult to achieve.

In essence, unless the state is flush with cash, policies prioritized to benefit the majority often get bumped by those that do not. And since Louisiana is going to be living hand to mouth for awhile, that means as far as getting the things done that need doing for successful recovery, as long as this system lasts the state is in a lot of trouble.

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