Last among equals
As he goes about closing state facilities with short notice, some may call the governor heartless and ruthless, but they can't say he's unfair. He treats affected legislators all the same: that is, shabbily. It matters not that the state mental hospital to be closed in Mandeville is in the district of Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, or that the prison to be closed in Calcasieu Parish is nearby to Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley; both key allies of Gov. Bobby Jindal got the word just shortly before their constituents.
Across those two regions, legislative friends and foes alike bristled at the personal insult to them on top of the injury to longtime workers at those institutions. What would it hurt for those legislators to get a little heads- up about the bad news coming? They might phone the governor's office to protest, but so what? He doesn't take their calls anyway.
This Legislature has gone from being told what to do to only being told after it's done. There is little that lawmakers can do about Jindal's bedside (or death-bed) manner, for they can't legislate courtesy. As for the governor's actions, many Republicans may philosophically agree with the fiscal responsibility of tough budget cuts, as long as they occur in the other guy's district.
But the forecast is for the situation only to get worse, and to begin hitting close to nearly every lawmaker's home. Following the sudden slashing of congressional funding to the state's Medicaid program, the 10 LSU hospitals around the state have been told to submit mock plans to reduce spending by 34.5%, which is a half point below the threshold for required legislative approval. Those percentage points translate into thousands of jobs that could be eliminated at any time in the coming months. By now, legislators know better than to expect Jindal to play favorites, for there is too much pain to go around, or for him to give them much notice, because there is nothing they could do about it anyway.
Rather, there is nothing they will do about it. The Legislature can call itself into special session, as Rep. Dee (“I'm fed up with it”) Richard of Thib-odaux is urging his colleagues to rise up and do.
All that is stopping them is a plan for what to do differently from the governor. There is little else to cut besides the hospitals, prisons and colleges that the governor already has targeted. The only other option is to raise revenue, by increasing taxes or suspending some tax exemptions, which the governor adamantly opposes. That's because Jindal answers to a higher power, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, to whom he has pledged to never raise taxes on anybody.
It would take a two-thirds majority of legislators to raise a tax, and two-thirds again to override the governor's promised veto. It is only slightly easier to suspend a tax exemption or credit, which also takes a two-thirds vote but which the governor cannot veto. There is a difference of opinion, however, about the two-thirds requirement for a suspension. Such is the standing legislative practice—based on the principle that it should be as hard to suspend a tax exemption as to raise a tax—but the state constitution is silent on the matter. If the question were raised, it would depend on a ruling by the presiding officer, which could be overruled by a majority vote of members. We are not there yet, perhaps, for a special session, but by the time lawmakers convene in the spring, its time could come.
That the governor's control over tax policy potentially is so tenuous makes one wonder why he would pay so little respect to legislators, especially to allies in leadership positions. He almost seems to be goading lawmakers to declare their independence and to raise revenue by suspending some exemptions, his no-tax-hike pledge notwithstanding. If, in that case, he could not be blamed, and as the decisions on cuts get harder to make, that may be what he has in mind.
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