The power to veto legislation is an essential part of American government. It is embedded in the United States Constitution as part of our separation of powers as well as our system of checks and balances. Presidents and governors have wielded veto power or threatened to wield it to momentous and lasting effect. All but seven U.S. governors, including Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal, have the additional power of line-item veto as a means of curbing excessive spending. As with all manner of political authority, the veto power should be used judiciously.
In recent weeks, Jindal has vetoed a record number of budget items, and he has publicly bragged about that record. In some cases, we agree with his decision to cut questionable spending from next year's operating budget. On other fronts, we think he has overplayed his hand by vetoing money for programs and nonprofits that for years have used annual state funding to serve important state interests. The governor also has vetoed progressive ethics legislation whose only deficiency is that it would apply some of the same standards to the governor's office that now apply to other public officials. The governor is getting lots of applause for his budget vetoes, but we think all his vetoes need to be vetted because not all of them are justified.
No doubt many of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that lawmakers inserted into the state's 2008-09 operating budget deserved to be cut. Take the Hot Air Balloon Festival, which got $25,000 in state funds for "cultural enrichment." Festival organizers didn't even file a disclosure form with the state, which Jindal required of all NGOs seeking state funds. Others, such as the International Silhouette Shoots and Sportsmen's Competition and the Southern Forest Heritage Museum, clearly need to find other funding sources. Jindal said as much about many of the vetoed NGOs after his decision to cut them from the budget.
But what about NGOs that benefit large numbers of people? In a letter to legislators in April, Jindal outlined his criteria for state-supported NGOs. Each entity:
Must have statewide or substantial regional impact.
Must have been presented/openly discussed during the legislative session.
Must be a state agency priority.
Must file the proper disclosure form.
Locally, Jindal vetoed $325,000 for the Treme Community Education Program, which has provided programs for the elderly in an impoverished part of the city for more than three decades. With one swipe of the veto pen and a boilerplate explanation "This is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) funding request which did not meet the criteria established in my letter of April 30, 2008." Jindal cut the program's funding. Thanks to the governor's vague, cookie-cutter explanation (which he cut-and-pasted, verbatim, to justify more than 200 of the vetoes), citizens will never know the real reason why this program did not meet his requirements. The same is true of the Louisiana Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Faubourg Saint John Neighborhood whose members took out a $12,000 loan to have a playground resurfaced and scores of others.
The governor claims his NGO criteria were "objective" and that he was "consistent" in applying them. The list of NGOs that were not cut suggests otherwise. For example, the District 2 Community Enhancement Corporation will receive $550,000 to build a fountain and a senior citizens center in eastern New Orleans. That part of town was devastated by levee failures and sorely needs services for its seniors, but Jindal's inconsistency begs the question: Why spare this NGO and not the older, more established Treme seniors program? We'll never know from the explanation offered in Jindal's veto message. This much we do know: Rep. Austin Badon of eastern New Orleans sponsored the District 2 funding request. Sen. Ann Duplessis, also of eastern New Orleans, has a daughter who sits on the NGO's board. Both Badon and Duplessis championed Jindal's school voucher bill. The Treme center's sponsor, state Sen. Ed Murray, voted against the voucher bill. Mere coincidence? We think not.
Elsewhere, Jindal also vetoed Rep. Neil Abramson's HB 176, which required elected officials to disclose the names of all their political appointees and how much each appointee contributed to the appointing official's campaign. The measure would have brought some needed "sunshine" to the governor's office, which may explain why Jindal vetoed it. In his veto message, Jindal cited "technical" problems with the bill's language. That's a lame excuse. Lawmakers in both houses supported the bill unanimously, and Abramson worked with the administration for months on the language.
Lawmakers are seething over Jindal's line-item vetoes. Some initially considered a veto override session, but most opted instead to wait until next year. At that time, we encourage lawmakers to make Abramson's ethics bill one of the first items on their agenda.