Lawmaking is political game

By By Jim Beam / American Press

The regular session of the Louisiana

Legislature is drawing to a close, and it’s a perfect example of history

repeating itself

year after year. The governor comes up with a proposed budget in

February, the House cuts and rewrites the spending plan and

the Senate puts it back together again at the last minute.

What happens throughout the process is a

game we might call “Rewards and Punishments.” Louisiana has one of the

most powerful

governors in the country because he controls the purse strings.

Play ball with the governor and you reap rewards. Oppose him

and you can be punished.

This isn’t a new game. It has been passed along by two of the most effective chief executives in the state’s history — Huey

P. Long and Edwin W. Edwards. However, Gov. Bobby Jindal is quickly becoming their equal.

The game begins after each gubernatorial election. Legislators are supposed to be an equal branch of government, but it’s

a myth. The new governor picks the speaker of the House and the Senate president. He also has a strong voice in who serves

on which committees. That is where the future of legislation is decided. Get your bill out of committee, and its survival

chances are enhanced.

Committee chairmanships come with a

staff and prestige. Vice chairmen also enjoy a slightly higher profile

than other legislators.

They all get the word early in the session that they are now part

of the governor’s team and need to cooperate to see that

the laws he wants get passed and those he dislikes are killed.

Members of the money committees enjoy special privileges. They always get financial goodies, usually on the day the major

spending plans leave their committees. Those plans are contained in House Bill 1, the state budget, and HB 2, the capital

construction measure.

Edwards fine-tuned the practice of

handing out special favors when in 1984 he offered members of the

Legislative Black Caucus

$7 million to spend on their own social programs if they would

support higher taxes. Those were called slush funds, but the

name has been embellished to make them sound more acceptable. They

came to be known as urban and rural funds, then pet projects

and, finally, member amendments.

Jindal has eliminated some funds, but cooperative legislators can still receive millions in handouts. When most of them were

cut out of HB 1, they ended up in HB 2. It’s another one of those deceptive tactics used in the rewards game.

Reps. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, and Joel

Robideaux, R-Lafayette, were in the race to become speaker, but they

weren’t the governor’s

choice. They were rewarded when they pulled out by becoming

chairmen, respectively, of the House Appropriations Committee

and the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, became this session’s first publicized victim. He lost his position as vice chairman of the

House Insurance Committee when he voted against a tuition bill Jindal wanted, even though it was approved. Other chairmen

and vice chairmen quickly got the message. They didn’t necessarily follow the governor’s wishes on every vote, but in most

cases those votes didn’t affect the outcome the governor wanted. So they were forgiven for straying occasionally.

No one is immune from punishment. Ask state Treasurer John Kennedy. Critics call him a headline-grabber with little substance,

but the voters think he’s right on target when it comes to reckless spending.

Kennedy has been saying the state needs

to cut state employees and reduce millions of dollars in questionable

state contracts.

Both ideas were unanimously rejected by the Senate Finance

Committee as being unrealistic. However, that wasn’t enough payback.

A day earlier the committee — without discussion — cut a

half-million dollars and four positions from the budget of the

treasurer’s

office.

Now, back to the state budget.

No one was really surprised Monday when the Senate Finance Committee beefed up the budget for fiscal 2012-13 with $350 million

in additional spending. The money appears almost out of nowhere, as it does every year.

Agency heads appointed by Jindal made

doomsday forecasts about what would happen if the money wasn’t restored.

They talked

about cutting programs that affected the most vulnerable citizens

in this state. It was no surprise when those people descended

on the state Capitol in protest.

Cooperative legislators always get

rewards in the two money bills. The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs

Committee, for example,

approved a capital construction bill containing $100 million more

in projects than there is money to spend in the year beginning

July 1.

And guess who gets to decide which projects get funding? None other than Gov. Jindal. He also has line-item veto power over

the state budget and can penalize legislators who fail to toe the line.

The governor is like the gambler who puts money down on every square of the dice table. He can’t lose. Jindal hedged his bets

when he supported most legislators who won re-election. Voters were won over when he preached his reform message for four

years in every nook and cranny of this state.

Legislators approved Jindal’s education reform program that has already brought him national recognition, even though the

changes are untested and untried. They will probably go along with his retirement changes that really don’t do much after

numerous rewrites.

It’s appearance, not always substance, that really counts when you play this political game called “Rewards and Punishments.”

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Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com.