On the surface, the special legislative session that ended last week resembled a small step in the right direction. Gov. John Bel Edwards and recalcitrant ideologues in the House of Representatives hammered out a budget deal to cover a $304 million hole in the current fiscal year's budget — without any last-minute votes on hastily cobbled compromises.
Beneath the surface, however, the partisan divide is as wide and as deep as ever between Edwards and leading House Republicans, with the GOP-controlled Senate generally in the governor's corner.
If you think fiscal policy drives Louisiana's budget discussions, think again. It's all politics.
The House's Republican leadership, particularly GOP Delegation chair Lance Harris of Alexandria and Appropriations Committee chair Cameron Henry of Jefferson (who many say is the real power in the House), is doing all it can to undermine Edwards at every turn. Oh, they have plenty of genuine disagreements about public policy, but when balancing the state's $27 billion budget stalls over $4 million escrowed in the state attorney general's office, well, the fight is obviously about more than money.
In this case, it was about taking money from the budget of Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has all but declared his candidacy against Edwards in 2019.
Landry, you may recall, is the grandstanding buffoon who sent a crime fighting "task force" into the New Orleans French Quarter for three months and then boasted that his team had made a grand total of 11 arrests. During that same period, New Orleans cops made more than 6,000 collars. Landry also has made a political cottage industry of opposing the governor's anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, despite the fact that Landry has a gay sibling. The enmity between Landry and Edwards runs deep.
Until the session began, many House Republicans crowed that a special session wasn't even needed. They said the state certainly didn't need to tap the so-called rainy day fund, as Edwards had proposed (to the tune of $119 million). When the session started and Henry's committee actually had to produce an alternate budget proposal, the chairman's opening offer was $75 million from the fund — after weeks of a GOP chorus against tapping the fund at all.
Days later, the governor and House Republicans agreed on a draw of $99 million from the fund, but deadlocked over how much to cut Landry's budget. Edwards wanted to whack it by $6 million, which smacked of political payback. When Landry's House allies threatened to tank the deal, the governor relented.
But there's a catch: That $4 million is in an escrow account, which means Landry might not be able to access it.
The regular annual session begins April 10, with next year's budget deficit looming and another opportunity for Edwards to lock horns with Landry and House Republicans — amid calls for fiscal reform.
Ah, there's a quaint concept: fiscal reform. The chances of that happening in the current political climate make the Saints look like a lock to win the next three Super Bowls.