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Tying HB 231 fate to SB 672 challenges Jindal

The power struggle between certain legislators and Gov. Bobby Jindal continues to escalate, as demonstrated by the House’s rare and unusual veto overridden attempts.

As speculated in the most recent post, Jindal seems sincere in his desire to allow the Legislature to assert more authority with less gubernatorial interference. However, he may have no choice to involve himself decisively and in an uncomfortable way unless he values this principle so much that he will let policies he presumably does not support – nor are politically wise for him – go through.

The crux around which all revolves is SB 672, the legislator pay raise bill that would permit full-time pay for a job that, properly defined, is part-time. It squeaked out of the Senate on the backs of veteran legislators, many of whom have also served a number of years in the House, while a coalition of those principled enough to understand the nature of their jobs and/or newcomers were not enough to stop it.

The old warhorses generally favored it because of their positions in the state retirement system – even though these are part-time workers, long ago they enabled themselves to participate in the system. The way it works (which differs a little from the system used for many full-time employees since these part-timers can be retired involuntarily at the ballot box) is their pensions are based on their final three years of salary. Since the bill goes into effect Jul. 1, everybody who stays to the end of their terms who qualifies for a pension (10 years service) gets a much higher pension as a result.

With 59 new members without prior legislative service in the House, that dynamic does not influence its decision-making on this issue as much. However, political liberals usually favor this idea (because they believe they should be able to do what they want with government power and get paid using money that isn’t theirs to do it) and some rookie representatives suddenly feel put upon by their new pastimes. Those who complain about what they have to do and the pay isn’t enough either ran for the position in some state of unforgivable ignorance, or they do not understand the proper scope and role of government.

Jindal at first said he would veto such a bill, then said it was an internal legislative matter and he would not veto it (hinting letting the bill go into law without his signature) if it got to him. But he also must know of the tremendous public opposition to the bill, which legislative veterans disregard because they don’t plan on running again where the issue could be used against them, or, along with newer members, they hope the public will have forgotten about it all in three years when elections again roll around. Whether the public will is another matter regarding individual legislators, but Jindal must know in his case enough people will not forget if he lets this go through.

So, Jindal must be pinning his hopes on enough newer legislators and/or principled veterans in the House that they recognize giving themselves an enormous (as much as the median household income in the state) raise immediately runs counter to the very ideas about government and government service on which they ran. If that happens, then Jindal will have succeeded in stopping something he seems not to want without seeming overly intrusive into the Legislature.

But to get there, or at least to create this impression, he may have to allow a lot to happen. He may have to accept more restrictive legislation than he likes on public information made available from the governor’s office (HB 1100) and/or more legislative control over final capital outlay choices (HB 582). Or relenting on these might not be enough depending on how much legislative fervor is behind a raise. The evidence is mixed whether Jindal can, or needs, to promise enough to stop the hike without a veto.

On the one hand, Jindal had to catch on late to the passage of SB 87 to cut income taxes for all but the most trivial payers after legislative momentum was threatening to make him look like he was the only significance force trying to stop any tax cuts despite favorable words about them during his campaign. On the other hand, yesterday he succeeded in getting through the controversial HB 1347 which would create a quasi-voucher program that New Orleans primary school students could use to attend the public or non-public school of their choices.

Also yesterday, however, a significant vote occurred on a relatively unknown bill with limited impact. HB 231 would remove in effect the general statewide prohibition on investments in companies with facilities or employees in Iran, North Korea, the Sudan, or Syria for the state Firefighters Retirement System. Why author state Rep. Jean Doerge would want to exempt one system of about 20 from this, despite the fact that from a portfolio-balancing perspective the present law (less than a year in effect) should create next to no difficulties, readers will have to ask her, but even with a 75-16 margin for passage Jindal vetoed the bill on the basis of principle that states supporting terrorism should not have even indirect Louisiana state investment in them.

That the veto happened at all is remarkable. In the past, typically governors relay to legislative leaders their feelings about bills early on so those that will draw a veto either get altered or are quietly shunted away – especially on legislation that, frankly, is fairly trivial like HB 231. This means the more controversial bills get worked on to try to please everybody from the fourth floor on down, meaning they usually come for passage right at the end of the session. Governors especially employ this tactic because then in order to override, a special override session of the Legislature must be called which creates less incentive for an override to happen.

But Jindal apparently gave little warning that a veto was coming, since on a minor bill like this the Legislature either would have dealt with it in another way, or Jindal would have used a veto threat to stall it long enough that even if it did still pass he could veto it after the session was over. This makes even more remarkable the attempt to override it. Not only do they almost never happen – especially for such an inconsequential bill – but, with just a couple of exceptions, they never have succeeded.

Simply, the disposition of HB 231 has turned into a power play between the Legislature and Jindal. He vetoed it to show that he would grant the body latitude and be less intrusive than past governors but that, in the end, he still would exercise power and excise things he did not want if the Legislature did not share that view and thus dare it to exercise its power to override, and the House so far is taking him up on that offer.

Yet why this one bill? The reason why the dare and its counter are so significant is in the context of the battle over the pay raise. The importance of HB 231 is so slight that normally the Legislature would not have wasted its time in an override attempt. In fact, of the other two vetoed bills it probably was the least important, both of which passed the chambers far more easily than did HB 231 originally and one of which’s veto was easily sustained, while the other didn’t even get voted on. The choice of HB 231 over which to pick a fight was deliberate and significant.

By choosing to take up HB 231, the House signals to Jindal that it is more than ready to make an effort on any potential override on SB 672. The point really will be driven home if it succeeds today in another override attempt on HB 231, a signal for Jindal not to contemplate an SB 672 veto if it does get out of the House, currently scheduled for tomorrow. This is a bolstering tactic to strengthen wavering representatives who do not want to go out on a limb to support SB 672 if a veto is forthcoming that they think has no chance of being overridden.

Whether the tactic succeeds to get SB 672 eventually passed, Jindal must understand that the other prong of its threat, to cow him, cannot be allowed to succeed for his own political health. The negative fallout over his dithering on SB 87 cost him about 10 percentage points in popularity, and failing to try to stop SB 672 would probably cost him just as many while making an attempt to kill it might get him those 10 points back. This means he will have to appear to backtrack on his non-veto position (which he never made in a public forum, but was asserted that he did so by legislators), but as uncomfortable as that is, he’ll have to do it.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but not to do so would pose a significant threat to his long-term political career. If he knows that, even as this is being written messages will be going out to representatives from the Administration informing them what happens to HB 231 has nothing to do with what will happen to SB 672.

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