Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Angry birds: Louisiana legislature edition

Jeremy Alford on the "fiscal hawks" bedeviling Bobby Jindal's administration -- from the right


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A few years ago, a handful of pesky Republicans gave way over time to a larger flock of angry birds that eventually became known as the fiscal hawks. There is also a Crowe in the Senate and a Dove in the House, but neither flies with the hawks, who built nests in the Capitol last year in hopes of returning to roost there permanently.

  Lay eggs they did, some of which already have hatched to reveal the Budget Reform Coalition (the new, official name of the hawks).

  The nonprofit's ranks are taking flight this year in search of tighter fiscal management, or at least better fiscal management than what the Legislature has exercised recently. The group also has become more aggressive at questioning the budget priorities of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

  The coalition gets the opportunity to prove itself this year. Its multi-part legislative package is co-authored by 34 representatives, roughly half the number of Republicans in the lower chamber and about a third of the House's total membership.

  While the coalition needs more votes than that to succeed, it is easily the most organized opposition the Jindal administration has ever encountered among lawmakers. The hawks are even showing some political flare, having recruited three Democrats to join their ranks: Reps. Jeff Arnold of New Orleans, Mike Danahay of Sulphur and Gene Reynolds of Minden.

  Somewhat out of place on the hawks' co-author list is Ways and Means Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, a reliable Jindal ally and author of the governor's controversial (and wildly unpopular) tax-swap plan. Also on the co-author list is GOP Caucus Chairman Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, who has shown an independent streak since he arrived at the Capitol a year ago.

  Harris has grown increasingly critical of the governor, most recently for trying to get rid of the higher education commissioner through back channels. Robideaux, meanwhile, may be trying to show some independence of his own. Last week, he told the Baton Rouge Press Club that as chairman, he would advance Jindal's tax-swap plan when his committee is ready, not in the two-week timeframe proffered by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, Jindal's top legislative ally.

  Elected in 2004 as an independent, which is rare, Robideaux parlayed an unsuccessful run for speaker and a party switch to Republican into his Ways and Means gavel last year. A lone wolf for most of his political career, Robideaux could still break either way: becoming a company man for Jindal for the next few years or reclaiming his independence.

  Other forces are at work in the House. With 24 of that chamber's 105 votes, the Black Caucus also needs allies to create huge policy shifts, just like the budget coalition. Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, who chairs the Black Caucus, is co-sponsoring a set of the budget coalition's bills. Those bills, which would increase transparency and prioritize spending, suggest that fighting Jindal's budget policies has crossover appeal.

  Don't be fooled: The coalition's stance against using one-time monies for recurring expenses is unlikely to receive much support from the Black Caucus. Many of its members favor using nonrecurring cash to keep critical services afloat, although the New Orleans contingency may side with the coalition on this issue, because some of that one-time money ($100 million) that the governor is trying to "sweep" comes from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

  The budget coalition has secured partnerships with five other Democrats, in addition to Jackson, to co-author specific bills from its package. But only 34 representatives, mostly Republicans, have offered blanket support.

  Also interesting to watch will be any potential power struggle within the coalition. Officially, Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, is the coalition's chairman, but press releases rarely go out without a secondary quote from another member. And within the coalition, some members claim ownership of certain issues.

  For example, Reps. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, are heading up a lawsuit seeking an injunction against Jindal's budget for the use of one-time money and contingencies. Henry and Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, also have struck out against the governor for his proposed transfer of $20.6 million from an artificial reef fund.

  For now, it appears the hawks know how to organize themselves and share the spotlight. They know how to form allegiances and identify crossover issues. The success of their outreach campaign in coming weeks will show if they also know how to raise money.

  But, to truly succeed, the budget coalition will need to figure out one more thing: the Louisiana Senate, which for now appears to be a hawk-free zone.

— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.


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