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Capital outlay reform demise hurtful to public

Well, that didn’t last long – capital budgeting reform from Gov. John Bel Edwards or legislative independence on that issue. More interesting is why and the consequences.

After a semi-comical interlude that found a delayed capital outlay budget head towards approval, the resolution of that dispute demonstrates nothing has changed in a process that over-promises and under-delivers. The resulting product for next fiscal year still shares with all of its predecessors oversubscription of projects that surrenders power to the governor.

Typically, legislators lard up this budget with much more spending than the state’s debt capacity will allow. This they do to create the impression to constituents back home that they bring home sufficient amounts of bacon. Even if they know possibly a decade will pass before it receives any money – and may never as the list changes annually or circumstances may moot the need – having a project out there with an attached dollar figure becomes a prop to wave in front of voters come election day.

But in consenting to this arrangement, they open themselves to manipulation. If a bill comes through over the limit, the State Bond Commission then picks and chooses which ones to fund, and historically the SBC’s composition left it open to gubernatorial influence. Governors then would use this as leverage to trade support on other bills for projects.

A transition away from this arrangement seemed in the offing when Edwards took office. The Democrat looked at the composition of the SBC and saw it stacked with Republican elected officials and members from the House of Representatives, who displayed the most emphatic assertion of independence from a governor in a quarter-century by selecting their own leadership. Realizing he would have a difficult time imposing his will on it, he officially announced a policy that would end oversubscription by concentrating on projects more regional and statewide in orientation, arguing this would better cut in to a tremendous backlog. This made good political sense in having him appear as a reformer trying to make government work better as well as providing more impetus to swallowing tax increases.

In retrospect, he may have feinted on the angle of not overstuffing the bill. The House, with efforts led by Democrat state Rep. Neil Abramson who heads up the House Ways and Means Committee that deals with the matter, produced a bill meeting the limit focusing more on broader needs. Yet as soon as it went to the Senate, while GOP-led much more favorable to Edwards with some Republicans demonstrating they will vote against the preferences of their constituents by favoring his agenda and protecting him from its potential electoral consequences, the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee counterpart to Abramson Democrat state Sen. J.P. Morrell encouraged the bill to light up like a Christmas tree. It came back to the House as if the new desired standard never existed.

So Edwards may have made his proclamation of a new era in capital budgeting all for show, or perhaps with his agenda floundering became desperate enough to try to accrue any advantage that he could to ram it home. Regardless, with his obvious blessing the overloaded bill wended back to the House the weekend before the regular session’s end. This appeared to flummox its leadership, and as a result, to the consternation of Democrats mainly, Abramson and Speaker Taylor Barras sat on it, with the special session currently ongoing already called and knowing they could complete it then.

Perhaps they hoped to maneuver the Senate back into presenting a more balanced bill in doing this, but, if so, when several Republicans also expressed vexation by joining Democrats in passing a symbolic measure urging taking up the bill prior to session’s end, House leaders lost their nerve. While they did manage to stop it for the regular session, when the special session kicked off shortly thereafter they presented a bill not far different from the Senate’s previous version and with some more stuff from their chamber.

Something pretty close to this will get enacted, and the old pattern will reemerge of a Legislature setting up a governor to trade horses with its members. Whether Edwards can do that to any great extent remains questionable: with only four clear allies (maybe one more) and seven definitely against him (four from the House, three executive branch rivals either running for the U.S. Senate or potentially against him in 2019) of the 14 panelists, he can’t win many if any prioritization votes by the body.

Still, the House missed a chance to assert independence due to the pressure of the Senate desiring to continue acting as arm of the Division of Administration. And ultimately it’s the people who suffer, because the more wheeling and dealing coming in capital outlay decisions, the less likely it becomes that these decisions reflect true statewide consensuses among and needs of the public in spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

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