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Less legislative oversight LA Legislature's own fault

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s veto of some bills from the latest legislative session that would have given more legislative control over the execution of one government program and contracting associated with another allows revisiting the question about appropriate separation of powers in Louisiana. But analysis of this improves with less hand-wringing and more thoughtful understanding of the separate roles the different branches of government play and how the Louisiana Constitution apportions powers to accomplish this.

One veto came as a line item to HB 1, the operating budget, and would have caused legislative committee review of all contracts over a certain amount emanating from the Recovery School District. The other was in the same bill as a line item and also expressed in a separate bill itself entirely vetoed, SB 207, that would have mandated legislative review of implementation of a program designed to more efficiently deliver health care services to the indigent.

In the case of the former, if anything this kind of stipulation begins to intrude on executive branch powers with the aggrandizement of them by the legislative branch.
There’s a reason why the governor’s office and the various departments and associated agencies in state government are termed the “executive” branch – because they are there primarily to execute the law, including decisions on contracts. And note that the power to execute things like contracts is assigned by specific legislative acts in the creation of these agencies. So by wanting to place the possibility of a legislative veto over these kinds of contracts, in essence the Legislature tries to take back some of the power it gave away, on a contingent basis.

But if the Legislature – and not the whole body but just a certain group of legislators empowered – wants to vet contracts, what’s the point in having an executive branch? Why accept this episodic conflation of executive and legislative powers, muddling the relationship between the two? For efficiency sake as well as for ease of accountability in the eyes of the citizenry, either the Legislature should leave the executive branch alone in the managerial function, or it should take on whole the function and micromanage everything without an executive branch.

As an aside, ironically while the Legislature seems somewhat eager to micromanage executive functions, in one vital and prime area solely the responsibility of the Legislature, it is remarkably neglectful and unwilling to fulfill its duties satisfactorily. Five-sevenths of Louisiana’s state-generated revenues legally and constitutionally are dedicated by the Legislature. A significant portion of these could be changed as easily as by the passage of an appropriations bill, yet they drag on, causing the state to accumulate billions of dollars over time in funds that never will be tapped for their stated purposes, if the purposes themselves even merit the state collecting funds for these and as much of them for it, when more pressing matters go underfunded. That the Legislature wishes to quibble over contracts yet does nothing to address imbalances in revenue apportionment and to make any serious effort to fund on the basis of genuine need and priority speaks volumes about the lack of courage to carry out the inherent purpose of a legislature.

This gutlessness also applies to the other situation. If a governor vetoes a bill and also a line item, the Legislature has a simple recourse: override the vetoes. Or, they could find another way to accomplish the purpose, as in the case of making the vetoed soon-to-expire portion of tobacco taxes permanent. Or, as the program progresses and the Legislature doesn’t like its results, it can do one or both of defund the program and/or remove its statutory authorization. In fact, by the numbers, it easily could undo the prevention of the legally mandated review authorized by SB 207 because the bill passed unanimously in both chambers. There’s no easier veto to override than that.

But there’s absolutely no talk among lawmakers of getting together a veto override session to accomplish this, despite the obvious slam dunk by the numbers. That’s because often when an issue comes to the forefront, when it begins to get publicity and actual debate of merits occurs, many legislators shrink away knowing their actions become more and more questionable to the public. They don’t want to have to address issues of legislative micromanagement or the wastefulness of the current indigent health care system and poor performance of public schools, because it would reflect poorly on their policy choices. This is why they prefer instead inserting review provisions in front of a committee representing a small portion of them that gets little publicity and the votes cast in its duties very difficult for the typical member of the public to discover, because they don’t want to take the heat.

Understand that when complaints get voiced about checks and balances in Louisiana government, it has nothing to do with the designed system itself and everything to do with a lack of will among legislators. They way the system designates powers, the Legislature pretty much can do whatever it wants, to the point of completely overpowering and mooting the executive branch, within the Constitution’s boundaries – if it has the will to do so. One should never confuse a lack of will among legislators with a structural bias favoring the executive.

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