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Possible titanic struggle in offing favors Jindal, House

During the 2009 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature, the political hijinks just don’t stop and are unlikely to until the clock strikes 6 PM on Jun. 25.

Yesterday, three separate bills were amended specifically to impose the will of one chamber on the other. But the lower chamber has the upper hand on the upper because its ace in the hole is the veto pen of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The most far-reaching changes were to HB 802. The bill started out as one that shifts money around to pay for certain appropriations to avoid some projected cuts to government in the operating budget, HB 1 which already has gone to Jindal largely undisturbed from Jindal’s original plan, thwarting the Senate’s desire to force it into a compromise committee as Jindal can pare its desired spending from it. Thus, from the perspective of the House and Jindal, HB 802 is a bill that must pass, and the Senate knew that.

The Senate floor amendments did three things. First, it redirected money from an already-implemented tax cut back into state coffers by creating a fund for higher education and pumping into it money from that reversal as stipulated in concurrently-amended HB 689. Second, it created a device by which the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund could be used, in a manner it is believed which does not require its automatic replenishment next year, that could shuttle some money to higher education. Third, it cancels the actions of SB 193 which would allow distribution of excess funds in a fund created in 2006 to entice insurers into the state which HB 802 originally intended to be used for distribution to higher education.

The mentioned HB 689 was the result of additional hijinks. That bill essentially swallowed into it through Senate amendment the text of the unconstitutional SB 335, the revenue-raising bill reversing the tax cut. House Speaker Jim Tucker refused to deal with it because that revenue-raising bill originated in the Senate. Presumably, the hijacking of a House bill puts that concern to rest, although a challenge to the Louisiana Supreme Court might prove interesting on that account.

For its part, the House’s attempt to trump went in a different direction. Through inattentiveness of a majority on its part, it allowed through an amended HB 841 which directs the state to accept legal changes that converts the state’s unemployment insurance program into a welfare-based operation, opposed by Jindal. The Senate has been more sympathetic to that sentiment and yesterday made sure HB 841 got passed out of committee, narrowly, without any changes. If that is replicated with the entire body, Jindal will be forced to veto it and there is not nearly enough support for an override. Its supporters know this, but want to use the bill to try to embarrass Jindal by making him use the veto.

But the House took a Senate measure, SB 303, and essentially amended out the life of HB 841. Since this was a change, concurrence by Senate assent or by conference would have to occur for it to continue. If HB 841 doesn’t pass unmolested in the Senate or at all, then SB 303 changes would be moot and easily removable. But if it does, the Senate would be unlikely to agree to the changes and then it becomes a matter of whether the Senate wishes to let SB 303 founder at the expense of HB 841. Nonetheless, HB 841 represents a small bargaining chip because while a Jindal veto of it would be popular, it could be used against him politically in the future.

The Senate changes to HB 689 also don’t represent much of a threat. It would seem to come up no earlier than Monday for concurrence, which no doubt will be rejected, giving a conference committee three days to work stuff out. The original bill isn’t that important to the House, so it would willingly let it die by refusing to budge.

This then would moot the language in the new HB 802 concerning that bill. It may direct that monies from HB 689 go into a fund, but that amount is zero dollars without HB 689. As well, the House could allow the Budget Stabilization Fund draw to go through and then its ace in the hole, Jindal, could swat that away as it is an appropriation and subject to a line item veto.

The only substantial leverage the Senate has is the language cancelling the cancellation of the insurance fund. That is not an appropriation and not subject to a line item veto, yet other appropriations wanted by the House and Jindal depend upon it. Further, the money shifting they also need, so the bill must pass. (The Senate also balked on another source of funds for the House plans, HB 720 which allows for a tax amnesty, but it needs that money, too so it’s likely to be acted upon soon.) This suggests three scenarios:

  • Some kind of complicated compromise emerges connecting all bills, where something of value gets through for each side. For example, Jindal Senate allies (if they actually are able) let HB 841 through unmolested, HB 689 is let through, language addressing that and the Fund draw stays, all are vetoed, but the SB 193 language is removed from HB 802. This is the maximum Jindal embarrassment option and not likely as the Senate majority probably does not value that much, but is an example. Many combinations exist in here, but they all represent the idea that the Senate knows it can’t win and therefore settles for what it perceives as a shaming of Jindal.
  • A simple compromise emerges on budget cuts. The most likely is a straight trade of the Fund draw for deep-sixing the tax cut reversal, and all other matters get excised. It makes the House and Jindal seem more caring about funding without any tax increases, and it makes the Senate not look bad for a bait-and-switch tax increase. At this time, this seems the most probable outcome.
  • But it wouldn’t be the most entertaining, which would be a titanic struggle of wills that probably advantages, because they have teamed up, the House and Jindal. They could tell the Senate to send it all over except SB 303, let Jindal veto everything that he can, and add to that an extraordinarily large number of senators’ projects in HB 1 the saved proceeds of which will be used to fund higher education at a later date. If Jindal has the guts to play it that way, accepting the loss of roughly two-thirds of the funds he would want to go to higher education, the Senate knows it cannot win and will blink. Also in the House and Jindal’s favor: allowing HB 802 through quickly, then sending along SB 193 and claiming since the latter was passed last it should take precedence over the conflicting former. These are why the Senate is likely to seek trade of the Fund draw for surrendering everything else.

    If nothing else, this upcoming last week of the legislative ought to rank high in entertainment value. Next week, turn off your afternoon soap operas and on your video links to the House and Senate chambers.
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