BY Mark ballard
Capitol news bureau
May 18, 2013
A magnanimous Gov. Bobby Jindal said an hour or so after the close of the 2012 Louisiana Legislative session, “I respect those that came to the microphone, even those that disagreed with us, even those that voted differently from the way we would have wanted.”
One journalist asked Jindal during this rare direct conversation with local reporters if he saw the need for another legislative session to reauthorize the funding for public education “given the controversy over the vote in the House?”
Jindal tossed off the issue, saying, “Absolutely not. No reason at all.”
His reaction, as if to an innocuous query, did not sync with the feverish lobbying his staff did the rest of that June 4 evening trying to convince reporters that Jindal’s interpretation of Louisiana House rules was correct.
The way House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, handled the rules for this issue — as well as several others during the session — left many legislators grumbling.
But in the real world of politics, where the goal is to win, the interpretations of the rules of engagement are whatever a politician can get away with. Stealing an analogy from Georgia politician Newt Gingrich, who adapted it from British satirist George Orwell, the sum of 2+2 is 5 if nobody successfully challenges the math.
The Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed two lawsuits Thursday challenging Jindal’s education overhaul, including whether Jindal’s interpretation of legislative rules, which Kleckley followed, was the right one. The validity of public school funding hangs on the decision.
For resolutions to pass, the House rules require a vote of the majority of those present at the time. That is what Kleckley decided and Senate Concurrent Resolution 99 passed with 51 votes. Because a “bill” carries the “force of law,” a majority of the 105-member body is required and that means 53 votes.
Usually the resolution that approves the Minimum Foundation Program is perfunctorily approved. Since Hurricane Katrina, a total of 21 lawmakers — both chambers, all six years — voted against what’s called the MFP resolution.
The MFP is a formula the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education uses to “equitably allocate funds” for the coming school year. SCR99 authorizes $3.4 billion in basic state aid for about 700,000 students for the 2012-2013 school year.
SCR99 also includes tax dollars to fund vouchers that some students can use towards tuition at specified private and parochial schools. Some of the legislators who approved using private school vouchers in April balked at funding them with public money in June.
The House, on June 1, voted 53-49 to add amendments that would have required BESE to start over. The Senate stripped off the amendments and the conference committee, formed to work out the differences between the two chambers, agreed.
Senators on June 3 voted 24-15 and representatives on June 4 voted 51-49 to pass the MFP.
A former school board member, State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said legislators heard from their constituents during the two months since Jindal pounded his education revamp through the Legislature, and tried to mitigate those votes by opposing the resolution that would fund the changes.
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, who heads the House Democratic Caucus, is a lawyer in Amite. He spent much of the session questioning the legalities of Kleckley’s interpretations of several of the House rules.
Resolutions usually are “expressions” of the legislators, such as Senate Concurrent Resolution 7, which commended the LSU football team.
Edwards argues that though called “a resolution,” not a penny of the $3.4 billion can be spent until SCR99 passes. That means this resolution carries the “force of law,” which requires 53 votes. “It’s not optional,” Edwards said.
The decision now rests with the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.
“The governor is at the zenith of his power, so we have been told, yet they couldn’t get a majority in the House to support funding the governor’s signature education policy,” Edwards said. “Despite all the arm-twisting, all the threats, all the sticks and all the carrots, they had to resort to rather unfortunate rulings.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@