Gov. Bobby Jindal has issued line item vetoes on the bill where “members’ amendments” got deposited, and as with every governor the question arises concerning the politicization of the decision process and its appropriateness.
When Jindal first attained office, he expressed some discomfort with the use of the line item veto as a policy-shaping tool. Given the presence of members’ amendments, or state tax dollars steered to specific local projects and uses both inside and outside of local government in a legislator’s district, not so much use but threatened use of it by a governor on them could shape support or opposition for various measures favored or disfavored by him. Nevertheless, early in his term he issued a four-part test that announced what would earn an automatic veto, signaling that legislators shouldn’t bother serving up such requests. Then when he followed through in 2008 with plentiful vetoes the next couple of years have seen few such violating projects go through.
Notably, it’s not that these vetoes during his tenure haven’t been deserved; one could make a great case every single request should have been. In the case of local governments, Jindal made the point early on that by having local governments do the spending themselves improved accountability as citizens could more easily understand where they tax dollars were going and make better judgments on policy. For example, one recent veto axed a police car for Sarepta (population under 1,000), in state Sen. Robert Adley’s district. If the town so badly needs a police car, why must it go to the state? How much would it cost the citizenry for an installment loan on it? And if the municipality is so broke that it can’t even afford a note of a few hundred bucks a month, doesn’t that beg the question about whether a combination of tax increases or reduction in services should be implemented instead of making taxpayers statewide pay for it? In fact, if this item is too expensive for the town to support, why doesn’t it just disband its police force and depend upon Webster Parish sheriff’s deputies for protection?
It’s hard questions like this that the slush funds going out as part of these requests end up getting avoided. Even so, Jindal’s criteria offers a chance to spare some spending, and certainly the criteria are carried out. While the city of Cankton got money vetoed for its walking track, it did get money for “city water and other improvements,” presumably as the latter is either a “state agency need” or has “substantial regional impact.”
But at the same time, judgment calls left discretionary room to treat nearly-identical things separately. Thus, while Sarepta’s police car gets removed, Carencro does get emergency preparedness equipment for its police department and Gonzales “emergency equipment” for its police. Several small-town police departments in northeast Louisiana got $5,000 for no defined purpose.
So, not only does Jindal use political criteria (the test) to create a pool of politically (if not rationally in terms of good policy) acceptable requests based on a broader ideology, he also uses different such criteria to facilitate the exercise of political power in pursuing his governing agenda. According to Adley, in his case retribution (on other requests as well) came because he vigorously sought changes to open records laws affecting the governor’s office not wanted by Jindal.
Yet observe that Adley and his like have a solution if they wish to counter Jindal’s agenda whether it is politically driven provided for in the Louisiana Constitution: they can urge their colleagues to call a veto override session, and then successfully undo the vetoes. It’s all part of a separation of powers, checks and balances arrangement to maximize the chances of good policy-making at the statewide level.
That aspect ensures that this formal process differs from the informal, brass knuckles style utilized by Pres. Barack Obama in his pursuit of policy. Jindal does not call in corporate CEOs to shake them down for $20 billion, nor promise administration jobs to inconvenient candidates, nor push allies on the Legislsture, nor redefine the Constitution to try to impose by fiat. The debate is open and follows formal Constitution processes.
Rather than whine about this, legislators should either call an override session, try to amend the Constitution to take away the gubernatorial line item veto power, or stop the slush funds. Otherwise, it’s just noise that serves no purpose other than self-catharsis and political grandstanding.