Three months ago, the Democrat-controlled federal government decided to spend some more money the country didn’t have on the states in a last-ditch bid to buy and activate support from some traditional constituencies, including teachers’ unions as almost half of the appropriations went an Education Jobs Fund to which states could apply to retain educators’ jobs. Louisiana applied and got $147 million.
After an interval during which local school districts were led to believe the money would arrive for them this fiscal year, the Jindal Administration decided to save the money for higher education for next year, by a complex shuffling of money from fund to fund. Because of the previous acceptance of federal funds for higher education, which apparently will not be available for this upcoming fiscal year, $68 million had to be there for higher education to fulfill requirements for use of the money already spent or intended to be spent. The remainder the Jindal Administration hoped to spend on higher education next year.
But for the fund shunting to occur and the money added to this year’s budget, this appropriations change had to be approved, as the entire Legislature is not in session, by its Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, a panel composed of members of each chamber’s money committees plus the chairmen of another important committee from each, which routinely accepts these changes. Composed as such, currently it is split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, given the chambers’ partisan balances.
So it wouldn’t take much for frustrated Democrats on the committee to relish a chance to stick it to Jindal. Several openly loath his attempts (with partial success) to hold down spending that contradicts their big government impulses, and especially resent his curtailing one of their main sources of electoral leverage, members’ amendments, with his line item veto power and its threatened use. Combine them with a few Republican members friendly with the traditional special interests that run elementary and secondary education in the state (some with backgrounds in it), and there were more than enough votes there to use only the $68 million for higher education next year, and to pump the other $79 million into state schools now.
However, likely this is not a novel assertion of legislative power; rather, it’s a one-off episode. This was a very narrowly-defined issue with plenty of time to investigate the public policy ramifications, among themselves and in public. The coming situation where thousands of line items and so many unknowns about hundreds of revenues and expenditure sources get dumped like a waterfall on legislators over just a few weeks always brings the advantage to the governor who has the staff to understand much better options and implications, as well as the veto power on which the Legislature never has used its override ability on any appropriation.
Yet the incident might convolute the process negatively. Jindal cannot act petulantly by using the incident as an excuse not to provide the leadership only available from his office in this time of budgeting stress in order to put the onus on the Legislature. For their part, legislators cannot see this as an encouragement to sabotage for political purposes only leadership emanating from Jindal, especially tempting as this is an election year; opposition should come only when it is constructive and assists in hammering out a budget without bad consequences in a period of declining revenue. Failure to operate in the proper spirit is going to make for a bad situation all around.