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Edwards budget crisis gamble likely to backfire

If Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards wanted to avoid political defeat on Louisiana’s budget, he managed to set himself up to make it more inevitable and worse.

The regular session ended without operating and capital budgets, as a direct result of Edwards’ allowing his handpicked Senate leader Republican Sen. Pres. John Alario and the governor’s ally Democrat Senate Finance Committee Chairman state Sen. Eric LaFleur to refuse any negotiations with the House of Representatives on the fiscal year 2018 general appropriations bill. The House wanted to hold back a little over $200 million as a hedge against disappointing revenue forecasts that have led to regular mid-year budget cuts over the past decade, while the Senate wanted no sequestering.

This led to the Senate trying to cram its version down the throats of the House, with its Democrat allies a mere 15 minutes before session’s end trying parliamentary maneuvers to bring it, without review by the House, to a vote in that chamber. Throughout, egged on by Edwards, his allies in charge of the reconciliation process refused to budge even as the House was willing to halve essentially the amount of dollars to set aside. This attempt represented nothing more than a bloodless coup on government spending, trying to foist a product Edwards and minority Democrats preferred over the GOP majority’s choices.

In the end, their intransigence prevented any deal and forced a special session this week to finish the job – an outcome some House GOP members suspected Edwards intended all along when he called what he termed a “cautionary” special session two weeks ago. Many times previously the chambers had entered a session’s final days even farther apart than now, only to come to agreement before its expiration without a governor cueing up a session well in advance. But Edwards simply cannot countenance the concept of policy driving spending rather than the reverse that would place on his shoulders the responsibility to make cuts, so he endorsed the tactic of making the House unconditionally surrender to no mandated cutting.

Ironically, making him the face of budget bloodletting seems likelier now that before. The Edwards/Senate intransigence had hardened attitudes among the House’s GOP majority. The procedural votes that tried to jockey the Senate version into the floor suggested that some Republicans-in-Name-Only would have supported that – namely state Reps. Chris Broadwater, Bubba Chaney, Patrick Connick, Johnny Guinn, Kenny Havard, Rogers Pope, Rob Shadoin, and Joe Stagni – along with no-party state Reps. Terry Brown, who typically sides with Democrats, and Joe Marino, who supported Edwards for governor, to make 51 votes, just two short needed for passage.

But in the aftermath, all other House Republicans seem embittered by the lack of good faith Edwards and the Senate leaders showed and now appear more strongly than ever to support the original House version. Some GOP Senators, led to believe the version they acceded to would lead to genuine negotiations rather than a take-it-or-leave stance, now seem more willing to accept not spending all available revenues as part of a Senate version.

And time is on the budget-cutters’ side. Simply, if not reaching an agreement, in early July Edwards has to start shutting down services. Far more of the public would blame the concrete visage of the state’s chief executive officer for a government shutdown spreading daily than they would an abstract collectivity of mostly part-time politicians. Further, his Democrat base disproportionately depends upon government activity that would become curtailed.

Edwards will suffer more pressure to make a deal, and unlikely could he make a better one than the House asking only for $100 million held back. In exchange for his obstinacy, he costs the state a half million dollars in special session costs and generates even more suspicion among legislative Republicans with whom he must work to achieve anything on his agenda. By gambling the House would cave in, he only dug himself a deeper policy-making hole.

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