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Firm Jindal can wrap up sensible budget, protect wallets

Louisianans still need to keep their hands on their wallets as the 2009 regular session of their Legislature plunges into its death throes, the dying often committing acts of desperation that could yet trump the state’s Constitution, break promises, and produce poor public policy. A dedicated attendant, however, can and must manage the crisis.

Of course that would be Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has emerged as a referee of sorts between the more cautious House and free-spending Senate. Quite sensibly, the House majority, effectively Republicans like Jindal, recognizes a looming fiscal crisis over the next three years and an economic recession dictate sometimes painful prudence in spending and keeping as many of the people’s resources in their hands as possible. By contrast, the majority Democrat Senate resists the idea of downsizing government to match resources and, as part of its plan, has gone so far to concoct a solution of dubious constitutionality.

That would be encapsulated in HB 689, essentially hijacked with the permission of the author state Rep. Karen Peterson to take back a tax cut that began nearly six months ago for those who itemize on income taxes. The original attempt, SB 335 by state Sen. Lydia Jackson, was denied a hearing by House Speaker Jim Tucker because it clearly violated Art. III Sec. 16 of the Constitution: “All bills for raising revenue or appropriating money shall originate in the House of Representatives, but the Senate may propose or concur in amendments, as in other bills.” Having tacked the SB 335 language into HB 689 the Senate presumes takes care of that.

This probably is something that, regrettably, will have to go to the judiciary. HB 689 never was designed as a revenue raising bill in the House but got mutated into such a bill by the Senate, so where did the revenue-raising capacity actually “originate?” Also constitutionally a problem is that it appears to be retroactive in nature, prohibited by Art. I Sec. 23 of the Constitution.

However, in the short term the constitutionality question can be mooted by Jindal, who may be playing the role of referee, but a biased one in favor of the House. The latest negotiations, excluding areas of agreement, seemed to have boiled down to acquiescence on his part to use about a ninth of the Budget Stabilization Fund to offset some cuts, but that the Senate resists the House’s attempt to use expected funds from a tax amnesty program to offset others and instead still pushes the tax hike to squeeze out even more revenues. The bargaining chip they seem to employ is about $30 million in House “member amendments” – specific line item appropriations to organizations in and out of local government – which they have stripped out of the supplemental appropriations bill HB 881 which contains also the appropriations language for HB 689. The offer seems to be trading some or all of the revenues raised in HB 689 for assent to the member amendments.

As noted previously, it does not have to come to this because Jindal has the upper hand. He needs to state simply that he will not sign HB 689, even if the House debates it (allowing the Senate to save face, although it is possible Tucker again could refuse to hear it out of constitutionality concerns) and it will vote it down. Further, he should declare what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if House member amendments don’t go through, he will veto every Senate member amendment. Given the dynamics of the process and bill languages at this point, these two remarks checkmate the Senate’s expansionary desires as its members know those vetoes will not be overridden by the House as it would have nothing at stake. Jindal is going to veto some from both chambers, but the two must cooperate in order to convey that too many Jindal vetoes on these line items and on other whole bills could trigger a veto override session.

Jindal doesn’t like to micromanage the Legislature, having articulated that governors ought not be in that business. But practicing what he preached last year put him in a position where he wasted political capital on the matter of pay raises to full time status for legislators. Being firm with the Senate now will avoid a repeat of that outcome and do a service to the Louisiana citizenry.

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