With a decisive vote approaching today on SB 407, which would prohibit an increase in individual drivers’ license fees from $21.50 to $36.50, the final parameters defining the politics of the issue will emerge in a debate that has shirked investigating the real questions.
From the beginning, Sen. Joe McPherson’s bill got hijacked by politicians trying to use its passage as a vehicle for one or more of asserting legislative independence, showing they “care” about constituents some of which would be asked to pay an intolerable almost a penny a day in extra costs, and angling to count coup on Gov. Bobby Jindal whose subordinates used their authority with his assent to raise the fee beginning Mar. 8. Conspicuously absent has been any rational discussion about the costs associated with the fee, its larger place in the funding of public safety measures, and the efficiency and scope of the operations of the state’s Department of Public Safety.
Bereft of any meaningful serious judgment of its merits or demerits, as a result it boils down to this: many legislators derive political benefit from its passage for those reasons while Jindal will not. At that point, either Jindal must submit and sign it into law which makes him look like he permitted subordinates to do something wrong in the first place and create a budget hole for him to have to address or can resist further with a veto that would not admit culpability. Yet the latter may dig a deeper hole for him in negative reputation if that gets overridden, producing the same result but with more embarrassment.
Intriguingly, the Legislature has left unaddressed in all of this the $13.6 million budget hole to appear with the bill’s enactment. Its current work on the state’s operating budget, HB 1 which must be in balance, makes no provision to remove that revenue and slice that amount. But a House amendment tacked on with its 90-7 passage yesterday tries to ensure that Jindal won’t foist blame on legislators by dealing with the deficit through closing district offices of DPS by saying he needs to do so to save money because of the bill.
This maneuver added another step to the process, Senate concurrence which seems likely. In doing so, this would add a day to its journey and puts it right at the limit to get the bill to Jindal and force a decision before the session ends Jun. 21; the governor must return a bill if vetoed within 12 days of his receipt if the Legislature gave it to him with more than 10 days left in an non-adjourned session.
While the House passed it well above the two-thirds margin needed to override a veto, the Senate about a month ago passed it just above the majority. However, 11 did not vote on that occasion so the five extra votes to get to 26 of 39 favoring are probably there. Still, this was without the House provision which could cost some Senate votes over budget concerns.
Given these dynamics, probably the best outcome for which Jindal can hope is 25 or fewer senators to pass; it seems unlikely that anything but concurrence will occur because that would stall the bill too long for a regular session override attempt to happen if needed. This would increase his confidence that a veto would stick and make it more likely to come. If a few more than that, he still might try it after doing some arm-twisting in the senior chamber to discourage an override.
Yet if many more, Jindal may have to suck it up and sign. But if nothing else is done about the budget to allow the created hole to stay – or even if it is dealt with –
there’s one more thing he can do to salvage something politically. Whether the hole exists, he can use his line item veto power to knock out member’s favored amendments to the tune of about $13.6 million, as presently around $11 million of these requests are present and the Senate will add significantly more.
Not every legislator has been able to plug a district project into HB 1 and some of them will have opposed SB 407. Regardless, enough should be there for Jindal to claim he is making these vetoes either to balance the budget or for some higher cause, such as getting money released now to parishes to fight oil spills, to cushion for hard times ahead, or things like that. Thus, Jindal would make legislators pay a political cost for complicating his life and making him look like a heavy.
This would dare the Legislature to come back for a veto session to undo his potentially dozens of vetoes – a staredown he is likely to win. Imagine public reaction to legislators adding hundreds of thousands of dollars of costs to a strapped state to allow them to approve of “pork” and “slush.” Especially if only some legislators’ projects got cut – maybe longtime antagonists of Jindal’s – getting a majority to call for such a session might be difficult. Perhaps even as I type this, communiqués emanate from the fourth floor of the Capitol to select senators outlining such a scenario to head off the bill even getting this far.
Since the Legislature never took up the serious aspects of the issue, on it now we can sit back and watch the circus-like political antics take the center ring over the next two weeks, and lament the lost opportunity for a real debate.