Serving It Up Cold

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State lawmakers are burning up their cell phone minutes talking about the possibility of a veto override session in response to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s line item budget vetoes. The political fallout from the vetoes is intense, but I’m not sure it will last. For one thing, most of the fallout is among legislators rather than voters. More important, having a veto session brings on additional risk for lawmakers, who might do well to heed the old wisdom, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

 

Playing It Out — Let’s assume, for purposes of discussion, that there is a veto session. That means every veto Jindal has made since the session ended is now in play — starting with the pay raises. Whoa! Can’t you just see the phone lines lighting up on talk radio again over that one? Even if Senate President Joel Chaisson and House Speaker Jim Tucker call a news conference to announce that pay raises are “off the table,” it’s a safe bet that the raises will cast a long shadow over any veto session. Voters will be suspicious, and that plays into Jindal’s hands.

 

Then there are the line item vetoes themselves: 258 in the operating budget, plus those in the supplemental budget, plus the one item struck from the capital outlay budget ($5.8 million for long-promised improvements to Barataria Boulevard in Marrero, which is a hurricane evacuation route for lower Jefferson and an area that has seen a lot of growth in recent years), plus other “regular” vetoes such as the one applied to Rep. Neil Abramson’s HB 176, an ethics bill that extended “transparency” to the governor’s office (more on this one below). With nearly 300 vetoes in play, should lawmakers seriously try to plow through them all? That would be circus too ugly to watch.

 

One alternative would be to forge some sort of consensus or near-consensus on which vetoed items will be overridden. That would not be easy. Let’s face it, many of the items Jindal vetoed should have been vetoed. Others are at least subject to question. As Bayou St. John David noted in his latest post, even some that are popular locally, such as the Dryades YMCA, have political ties that cloud the otherwise good work that they do. So, how might leges, or lege leaders, try to cherry-pick a dozen or two “good” items to salvage without admitting that most of the governor’s vetoes make sense? One senator told me, “Maybe we can just pick 24 ‘good’ items to save.” I answered, “You’ll need to pick 26 good items to override it in the Senate — and then there’s the matter of getting 70 votes in the House.”

 

Oh…

 

Adopting the state operating budget in the first place takes two to three months — and that’s after the administration spends months putting together a proposed budget. Trying to sort through (read: horse trade) hundreds of local projects in the glare of media spotlights will be harder still. Meanwhile, it will be relatively easy for Jindal to portray it all as a vendetta — an interesting twist when you consider whose pet projects were whacked and whose were spared. For example, state Sen. Ann Duplessis’ “District 2 Community Enhancement” appropriation of $550,000 somehow dodged the governor’s veto pen. Sen. Duplessis was the Senate author of Jindal’s voucher bill. The Dryades YMCA is a pet project of Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, who was a lead opponent of vouchers. Coincidence?

 

The only possibility that I can foresee of a veto session not dissolving into chaos would be for lawmakers to agree in advance on one override as a symbolic and yet still substantive response to Jindal. That’s where Abramson’s House Bill 176 comes in. The bill, which passed unanimously, was watered down at the administration’s request because Team Jindal did not want to endure the same levels of transparency that it sought to impose on most other elected officials. Abramson initially tried to address this in the  “ethics session” in February, but was ruled out of order (not part of the official “call”). He came back in the regular session with HB 176 and negotiated at length with Team Jindal on specific language changes — and then the governor vetoed his bill anyway. I don’t know Abramson particularly well, but his bill sure seems like a good place for lawmakers to make a stand. It would steer attention away from pay raises and pork and slush funds and put it back onto something Jindal supposedly stands for: ethics. And, it would shine some light into one of the governor’s darker corners. For once, it would put him on the defensive.

 

There may be other bills that could do this just as well or even better, but I’m not aware of them. Otherwise, I think a veto session would play into Jindal’s hands by letting him portray himself as the reform knight who constantly battles the legislative dragon. He’ll win that fight every time, regardless of the merits of the issue, particularly when the issue is spending.

 

Looking Ahead, Serving It Cold — Senate President Chaisson and others are quietly suggesting that the better course of action is to wait ’til next year. This may even apply to Abramson’s bill. It all depends on timing.

 

Leges got into this “veto session” quandary by waiting until very late in the regular session to pass the budget and other sensitive issues. That happens every year, but in past years governors didn’t veto many budget items, so it didn’t matter. Jindal has rewritten the script with his vetoes.

 

Next year, during the “fiscal-only” session (now a misnomer), lawmakers may have to reconsider their timetable. If they want to avoid having to consider a veto session, they should hold up the items that the governor wants until late in the session and pass what they want earlier — at least 11 days before the session ends. Under Louisiana’s constitution, a governor must decide whether to veto legislation within 10 days if a bill is delivered to him with at least 10 days remaining in the session. Under that scenario, a veto could be overridden during the regular session. More likely, Jindal would not veto items that lawmakers really want without risking things that he really wants (like more money for his voucher program; more on that below).

 

In addition, lawmakers can still introduce up to 5 non-fiscal bills each during the “fiscal only” sessions that occur in odd-numbered years. Abramson could thus re-introduce his “executive sunshine” law — this time with the original, tougher terms intact — and lawmakers can pass it quickly. If Jindal vetoes it, they can override him during the regular session.

 

Finally, one option that I know some lawmakers are considering is an indirect assault on Jindal’s voucher program. They probably don’t have the votes to repeal the new voucher bill, and even if they did he could veto the repeal with confidence — he probably has enough votes to sustain such a veto. But, it takes a majority of each chamber to fund the voucher program at whatever level the governor wants. It was $10 million this year. No doubt Jindal will want to increase that next year. But he can do that only with legislative authorization via the budget. Here’s where the dish gets cold: what if lawmakers reduce, rather than expand, the appropriation for Jindal’s voucher program? What if, say, they cut it from $10 million to $1 million? Or just keep it at $10 million?

 

Quite possibly, if Jindal thought that were going to happen, he would have some “discussions” with lawmakers over lunch at the Mansion (not subject to the $50 entertainment rule) and try to reach some mutual accommodation — no deals, of course, just a deeper understanding of each others’ position.

 

The problem with that is lawmakers no longer trust Jindal. He burned them on the pay raises, on vouchers and on line item vetoes. He has a long way to go toward rebuilding trust among lawmakers, and he has three more years of sessions — assuming he plans to serve out his term as governor.

 

One caveat: There’s going to be another huge state budget surplus this year, and maybe next year as well. Other governors would no doubt use that money to curry legislative favor and mend fences. Jindal could try to do that. It will be interesting to see his proposed use of that money. Certainly a lot of cash will be needed for flood protection and coastal restoration, among other infrastructure needs.

 

The only thing that seems clear right now is that lawmakers ought to heed Chaisson’s advice to “seriously consider whether or not a veto session makes sense at this time.” Immediately after the session, I put Jindal down as a “looza” for misplaying his hand on the pay raise and Stelly Tax Cut issues. I haven’t changed my mind on that, but even his critics have to admit he’s winning the PR war against leges in the aftermath. Voters seem to love his vetoes. That also argues for leges serving up their vengeance later rather than sooner.

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