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Substituting Sloganeering for Leadership in Louisiana

For years, Democrats in Louisiana ran the state legislature incompetently and inefficiently, wasting the taxpayers’ money and creating bloated entitlement programs that generated structural budget deficits that were almost impossible to overcome. In 2010, for the first time in ages, Republicans finally gained control of both chambers of the Louisiana legislature, giving them the chance to finally show the people of Louisiana that Republicans could pass an efficient and fiscally conservative budget that did not raise taxes.

In the Louisiana House, the Republicans’ first order of business was to promptly give control of the budgeting process back to the Democrats.

You see, somewhere along the line, someone got the bright idea that a good electioneering slogan was “No One Time Money for Recurring Expenses.” On a surface level, this kind of appeal makes sense, especially to people who don’t understand how the budgeting process works. The slogan was an effective way to capitalize on voter frustration over the depletion of things like tobacco settlement funds and federal stimulus money to pay for ordinary budget shortfalls, which many people perceived as being wasteful of money, and indicative of the fact that the true fiscal problems of the state weren’t being confronted, and instead were being kicked down the road.

Therefore, the Louisiana House passed an internal rule that any bill that spent “one time money on recurring expenses” required a 2/3 vote to pass (the so-called “Geymann Rule”). Since Republicans barely control over 50% of the legislature, this means that no such bill can pass without a significant deal being cut with the Democrats. What the Louisiana Republicans failed to consider was that it would be impossible to pass any budget – even in the absence of federal stimulus funds or tobacco money – without using “one time money,” and no one really had any idea of what constituted a “recurring expense.” Now, with less than three weeks left in the legislative session, Republicans are facing the stark reality that through their self-imposed rule, they have put the budget process back in control of the Democrats they worked so hard to defeat.

I sat down yesterday and talked with Republican members of the Louisiana House, none of whom wanted to go on the record (for understandable reasons during a delicate negotiating process) about the effect of the Geymann Rule on the entire legislative session in Louisiana so far, and how Speaker Jim Tucker has used the Geymann Rule to solidify his singlehanded control over the budgeting process.

One Republican legislator indicated that a fundamental problem plaguing the entire Louisiana legislative process is the lack of accountable staff. Unlike in the United States Congress, members of the Louisiana Legislature have NO staff who report specifically to them, and who they can hire and fire. Rather, there is a pool of communal staff, many of whom have been around since the days of Edwin Edwards, and who are (incredibly) entitled to civil service protection. A consequence of this is that members of the Louisiana Legislature have no one who they can trust to read through all the hundreds of bills that are proposed in any given session and explain to them what each of the bills means, provide them feedback about what the constituents back home are saying about the bills, and provide advice about which bills ought to be voted for and against.

This particular legislator characterized it as a “widespread” problem that members of the Louisiana Legislature have no idea what is in the bills they are voting for, other than what (if anything) Speaker Tucker explains to them about the bill.

One Republican legislator also indicated to me that a specific problem with respect to the Geymann Rule in particular is that the Geymann Rule does not define what a “recurring expense” is. It would seem that since the budget is an annual process, by definition no expense is “recurring” unless it is budgeted for year after year. However, this Republican legislator indicated that the designation of whether a given expense is “recurring” or “one time” is made by a lifetime Democrat legislative staffer. Given that designating an expense as “recurring” means that the Democrats will be given veto power over any bill containing it, you can guess what sort of incentive this staffer has when making the designation.

Furthermore, although Federal stimulus money or tobacco money doesn’t arrive every year, the reality is that the State has a certain amount of “one time money” that comes in every single year, and that the amount of this money can be budgeted for with a fair degree of reliability. For instance, the State of Louisiana (like all other states) regularly participates in civil litigation (such as when the Department of the Environment sues polluters, etc.) which brings in verdicts and settlements, which can only be characterized as “one time money.” Additionally, the State regularly receives money from programs from the Federal government that come in every year, but since they are appropriated annually (or biannually), they are also technically “one time money.” It is literally impossible to formulate a workable state budget without this money. Therefore, in order to get a budget passed, the Republicans have put themselves in a position where they will have to compromise with Democrats. And how do Democrats propose to balance the budget? If you guessed “by raising taxes,” you are correct.

I spoke with a Republican legislator yesterday who confirmed what has been a common theme among people I have talked to about Tucker since I have been here. Back in the days of Kathleen Blanco’s administration, Tucker was the bomb-thrower who tried to keep Blanco’s agenda in check – a job for which he was well-suited and effective. Since Republicans have taken charge in the House, he has not learned how to adjust to a responsible leadership role, and has continued playing the role of bombthrower against Jindal.

Part of this is surely political ambition. Tucker is term-limited and is widely expected to run for Secretary of State next year. Many here in Louisiana seem to be of the belief that Tucker is engaging in these antics in a bid to raise his name recognition by attempting to position himself in the mind of voters as to the right of Jindal. In the meantime, however, his political maneuvering has hamstrung the Republican agenda in Lousiana and needlessly transferred power back to the Democrats.

The Republican legislators I talked to agreed that the sale of the state prisons (discussed here) is probably the lynchpin to the successful passage of many of Jindal’s reforms, including the implementation of his Medicaid reform. But even if the sale of these prisons goes through, because of the Geymann Rule, Republicans will still be at the mercy of Tucker and a Democrat staffer as to whether the transition funds necessary for Jindal’s free market reforms (many of which are bitterly opposed by Democrats and the unions that empower them) will be improperly designated as “recurring expenses” and thus killed for failure of a 2/3 vote.

It’s a bizarre way to run a state, and it illustrates what happens when slogans are substituted for leadership. It could well be that Tucker has a legitimate objection to how various kinds of one-time funds (like Federal stimulus money) were used in the past; but installing a blanket policy like the Geymann Rule shows a lack of long-term strategic thinking and real-world leadership. At this critical point in Louisiana’s future, the Louisiana Legislature should realize their mistake, repeal the Geymann Rule as a blanket policy, and apply the slogan to combat the evils which it was truly intended to combat, rather than in such a way so as to empower Democrats who care nothing for fiscal conservatism.

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