Search This Blog


Can Jindal have cake, eat it too with pay raise bill?

One the one hand, there is political principle. On the other hand, there is political suicide. Can Gov. Bobby Jindal have the former and avoid the latter over SB 672? Or is he even more ambitious than winning this daily double?

The bill, amended today to increase most legislators’ salaries to about the median family income for Louisiana for what is defined constitutionally as a part time job has drawn a Jindal response as curious as how he handled SB 87, the bill awaiting his signature that cuts taxes for most Louisiana income tax payers. Concerning it, at first his administration said it was against it, then he said he was for it if offsetting budget cuts were made, then he allowed the Legislature to add a poison pill amendment to it that would surely have drawn his veto, and finally backed putting it into its original, if delayed, form.

In a message released this afternoon Jindal said there still was time for the Legislature to alter its course of an “excessive” raise – that is, either let the bill die in conference or change it to give a small raise. Nonetheless, he still maintained that he would not veto it, intimating that there would be some kind of halt to his legislative agenda which he referred to as “tremendous reforms and progress” that equated to “the people’s business” if he did so. This does sound like that the legislative leadership did threaten to pass or drop pertinent legislation to Jindal if he vetoed the bill.

This stance seems peculiar, just as it did for SB 87 where Jindal, who said during his campaign that he hoped to be able to cut, perhaps even eliminate, individual income taxes during his time in office, seemed for very unclear reasons to be fighting this very opportunity. Now, Jindal states opposition to excessive pay raises yet apparently refuses to prevent them. What explains this schizophrenic policy behavior?

In both cases, Jindal seems wedded to the idea, scoffed at by some during his campaign, of legislative independence. It appears he hoped SB 87 would be shunted away quietly by the Legislature because he felt looming budget problems were too daunting to permit a tax cut at this time, and must have calculated this reasoning would have been insufficient political cover over the furor of his opposing the cuts. If so, he miscalculated as legislative independence put him in a bind.

If anything, his position here is worse in allowing legislative independence. He also apparently misjudged the determination of legislative majorities to ram home these raises despite overwhelming negative public reaction, maybe out of simple retaliation. After all, Jindal was the driving force behind ethics reforms that potentially could make for less lucrative livelihoods and more burdensome reporting for some legislators; perhaps this raise is seen as compensation. But the consequences for him politically are more dire because, on the surface, he has put himself in an almost no-win situation.

For if he does not stop the bill as currently constituted, as much public rage will be vented against him as legislators, and while he won’t be blamed as a perpetrator, he will be tagged as weak and unwilling to stand up for principle (smaller government, ridding the state of past politics, etc.) and this will be remembered longer and more intensely than the greed of the Legislature’s supporters of this raise. The irony, of course, is that he is following principle, legislative independence. Yet it is the wrong principle to follow at the wrong time, for to follow it forces Jindal into political hari-kari.

This is because even if he does veto the bill in its present form, he commits another crime, breaking his word. While many in the public would forgive him this for this veto, many in the Legislature would not, making his next three years rocky (maybe what he meant in referring to “progress;” not just this session’s work but the rest of his term), and his opponents will term him untrustworthy on the campaign trail. In the end, he probably loses less political capital over these negative outcomes than by not vetoing the bill, but he still has put himself in a situation where he loses it.

Jindal may have colossally blundered in this situation to make it lose-lose for him. Or has he? Consider what the bill does: its salary raise of about $3.5 million annually Legislature officials say already can be paid for out of the surpluses in the chambers’ coffers, built in for things like maintenance and new equipment but which can be transferred to operating expenses. This year’s budget is in HB 1294 and it is almost $69 million, of which over $47 million goes to the two chambers from which salaries are drawn (legally, prior to any other state expenditure on operating expenses except for the constitutional officers). The remainder goes to various legislative agencies.

Knowing this, Jindal goes to House Speaker Jim Tucker, and Senate Pres. Joel Chaisson, who more than any other officials drove home the raise, and tells them he will cast line item vetoes within HB 1294 to take at least the additional $3.5 million out (by vetoing the lines for the Louisiana State Law Institute and the Legislative Fiscal Office) or maybe more if SB 672 goes through in its current form. He also contacts individual legislators, the 16 senators of who voted against it, and the 45 representatives (originally it was 40, but some latecomers before the end of the day jumped in with no votes) who did likewise, tells them their earmarks in HB 1 and the supplementary HB 1287 are safe, and contacts the 20 senators and 56 representatives who voted for it and tell them their earmarks will be vetoed unless SB 672 is altered sufficiently.

This creates a massive game of chicken. An override needs 70 in the House and 26 in the Senate, and the votes aren’t there if the nays on SB 672, promised their earmarks, hold firm, and/or enough yeas defect scared of losing theirs. If the leadership continues unabated, it can get really interesting. Because of the timing, Jindal can cast all these vetoes after the session, meaning an override session would have to be certified in early August for a maximum of five days. Not only will that chafe on legislators, it gets comical because the Legislature will have no appropriated funds to finance this session if called, having to dip into its reserves to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving it even less able to pay for the raises. And the best thing of all, it may not come off because Jindal can use the same threat to get enough members (at least half in each chamber) to sign right after the session is over they don’t want an override session.

Admittedly, this is a crapshoot. Logrolling may be such that enough would agree to get the two-thirds requirements fulfilled to override each and every line item veto. But because it’s an uncertain chance, legislators may be scared to take it. Thus, Jindal may cow the legislature to do what he wants. Further, they cannot threaten to derail his programs yet unpassed, because then he’ll simply veto SB 672 by their breaking of the implicit agreement to which Jindal alluded.

The beauty of all this is that Jindal can claim he respected legislative independence in the matter of their salaries, but at the same time did something – the two line item vetoes – that forced them to live within their means – if the Legislature’s leaders don’t cave in under his implied threat and adjust SB 672 accordingly. Meanwhile, the Legislature looks bad, trying so desperately to preserve a deeply unpopular raise.

Every incentive would be for it to back down, to look better and not have to go through a possible veto session that may not come off or work for it – in which case it goes a whole year eating into its reserves – exhausting them, no doubt – unless it wants to call itself into special session to deal with this (and the products of which Jindal still can veto), which never has been done on its own and would be the third this year. Best of all for Jindal, if it does back down, he has completely and thoroughly whipped the Legislature for his entire term, sending them the message that it can be independent – but on a few select issues it better check with him first. And to the state – and the country when word gets out – he will appear to be a hero.

Is this the very high-stakes strategy Jindal is attempting – getting his program through, allowing more seeming legislative independence, and creating a crisis that makes him look heroic to the public in Louisiana and elsewhere? If so, Jindal has guts that equal or surpass any of the famed iron-fisted governors of the state’s past. If not, at least it’s fun to think about to take our minds off this incredible insult to the state’s people that constitutes the present SB 672.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sorry, at this point I have to go with colossal blunder and incredible insult.

There have been too many missteps lately to think otherwise.

The sound of my hopes crashing is deafening.