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Hines tantrum shows term limits can get job done

Yesterday, a boondoggle to the state of Louisiana got derailed with the State Bond Commission voting not to put state money behind a money-losing sugar mill, but mostly for the wrong reasons. Today, a proposed special session spinning out of control might get sidetracked and again mainly for the wrong reason. In the process, it demonstrates an interesting and desirable side effect of term limits.

The biggest supporter of the mill, Sen. Pres. Don Hines, today transmitted a letter to Gov. Kathleen Blanco who had planned to call a special session over the weekend starting next Friday (which she must do in order to have it start that soon) which requested for her not to call the session. He mentioned it in that its timing was bad (too close to Christmas with other senators planned to be away) and that he thought the items she contemplated were too broad to be completed adequately.

Both complaints ring true but, if she wanted to, Blanco could ignore them. If she could get the Revenue Estimating Conference together, which she or her representative could call, and have declared roughly $1.6 billion declared ready to spend in different ways, with that much largesse to dole out, probably enough senators wouldn’t mind a midwinter’s gathering. However, one other part of the letter contained Hines’ real threat, when he said the state had only $331 million that it could spend before hitting its Constitutionally-imposed limit, requiring a two-thirds vote to override.

That’s because Hines as president is one of the four members of the Conference, and all members must agree that a surplus exists before it can be spent. This was Hines’ way of saying he was going to veto any such declaration, knowing that having just $331 million lying around may not jazz enough senators to want to stick around Baton Rouge to have a full session – the Constitution only allows a governor to call a special session with a specified agenda; it does not force the chamber to do anything and it could adjourn almost immediately. (This is even if he allows it to meet; as the current Conference chairman, he makes that decision.)

In a news conference concerning the letter Hines made obvious the genesis of the threat. “I’m not mad about the syrup mill; I’m just going to get even, that’s all,” he said. Yes, that’s absolutely petty and immature, making it about par for the course for the good-old-boy populist politics in Louisiana.

Still, the fact remains that Blanco’s idea of a special session and the right way of doing exist far apart from each other. Blanco sees it as an early Christmas, giving away all sorts of presents to the electorate to take the wind out of the sails of potential opponents to her reelection next year, especially Democrats who may challenge her, making it logistically difficult and philosophically problematic because the issues of tax cuts, credits, spending priorities, and the like deserve much more of a hearing than less than a couple of weeks can provide. Doing it right would mean a longer session, which would turn off legislators, or a much more limited agenda, which does not serve Blanco’s political agenda.

So Hines may end up doing the right thing, scuttling the unrealistic, political session, for the wrong reason, a temper tantrum because his son-in-law and other cronies didn’t get what they wanted. Even more fascinating, this assertion of legislative power relative to the governor may have happened because of something most legislators lament, term limits coming due with next year’s elections.

Hines is term limited, as is over a third of the Senate. It doesn’t matter so much to them to disperse the goodies because it serves them no real political gain without voters to impress. That incentive devalued to them, the governor loses leverage over the body. And it provides a piece of validation for term limits if that ends up causing a realistic special session to occur or prevents an unrealistic one from doing more damage to the state.

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