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Edwards pretends having control of budget

The only “pretend” associated with the Louisiana Senate moving a fiscal year 2019 budget to completion is the thought that Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has any significant control over the process.

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee dealt with, and passed out, HB 1 by state Rep. Cameron Henry. The state’s general appropriations budget for next year as it came from the House contained noteworthy cuts to a largely standstill budget, about two thirds coming from Medicaid programs and about a quarter from the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. These represented, respectively, about five and ten percent of each’s spending.

Edwards didn’t want to see any such action. All along, his strategy sought to pass no budget during the regular session, then in a special session increase taxes permanently mostly on income and weighed against corporations and write the budget according to that. If a budget emerges, he must sign it or else he becomes known as the guy who created chaos despite all his election promises to fix what he said ailed state government.

If doing so, Edwards loses tremendous leverage over what comes next. In the special session, he must accede to any revenue-raising requests – and he must lobby furiously his own party to do the same – that likely would focus on consumption taxes and last only temporarily or else he becomes known as they guy responsible for big cuts to state government that stymie many programmatic offerings.

That outcome of significantly shrunken government comes from the budget in present form, which rearranged the House’s blueprint. Essentially, it restored cuts to Medicaid and TOPS by cutting across-the-board executive branch operations elsewhere by nearly a quarter and by engineering some funds sweeps.

Powerless to resist it since his committee contains a healthy majority of Republicans, Chairman Eric LaFleur – who had led legislative Democrats when in the House, succeeded by Edwards – did what he could to trash talk the product, alleging the state couldn’t function under it and calling it a “pretend” budget. This line Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne picked up on and added, “this is not a pretend body. Why continue to perpetuate a debate over a budget that is unfixable?”

But, in fact, by echoing his boss’ wishes, it was Dardenne acting as a “pretend” commissioner. Rather than pout and argue that the Legislature should abrogate its business of producing a budget, Dardenne should have behaved as a statesman rather than political hack and live in the real world: this is the revenue picture as is, and here are the desired expenditures, so now plan to make it work until further notice.

And, the committee gave him a road map to fix it, in the form of two identical resolutions. The one inviting in the House, SCR 101 by Republican state Sen. Jack Donahue, asks to continue a half-cent sales tax from the one cent expiring soon as well as partial exemptions from sales taxation of a variety of transactions. It also argues that going forward budget authorizations for 17 different tax credit programs should not reach 100 percent, in order to keep future spending in check.

Ever the loyalist, LaFleur initially said he would not schedule HB 1 for immediate consideration. Whether he shifted into pragmatism or bowed to the wishes of GOP Sen. Pres. John Alario – who joined several Republicans during the hearing in giving Dardenne a tongue-lashing for his posturing rather than governing – both that bill and the resolutions appeared on the Senate’s Monday calendar, although later it was put back until this Tuesday.

Edwards also won’t let his vision of oversized government go down without resistance. Earlier this week, he called the anticipated special session to begin next Tuesday, authorizing the Legislature to raise sales and, his preferences, income taxes on both individuals and corporations. During a news conference prior to that, he sounded defiant about the budget in progress, proclaiming it not something the state wanted but not saying that he would veto it.

More significantly, Edwards went on the defensive about his decision to have sent out letters warning of potential program terminations for Medicaid recipients. A normally servile and compliant media that typically uncritically swallows his explanations repeatedly asked skeptically about his rationale for that – even as past legislatures did not have budgets complete prior to 60 days from session end, other governors did not try to set off panic with such letters.

It’s all part of recognition that he’s lost control. Edwards might regain it – and he must, if he has any chance at reelection.

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