Louisiana Spotlight for Nov. 5, 2012

Louisiana’s lawmakers spent a lot of time recently complaining about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decisionmaking on deep budget cuts to the LSU hospitals, lamenting that they’ve been sidelined even though legislators are supposed to devise the spending plans.

They’ve disapproved of the closure of a state-run psychiatric hospital, the shuttering of a state prison and the steep reductions to the university-run public hospital network without concrete plans for private hospitals to pick up the care or the medical-training programs.

Jindal made the choices without them.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers actually want to do anything about it — or are circulating their own ideas on how to rebalance the $25 billion budget in a different way.

State senators rejected attempts to bring the Legislature back into a special session to consider reversing Jindal’s recent cuts.

Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard, an independent from Thibodaux, needed 13 of 39 senators and 35 of 105 House members to sign onto supporting the special session idea, to just trigger a mail-in ballot of lawmakers about whether to hold the session.

He exceeded the threshold in the House, but could get only nine senators on board by the deadline.

The outcome wasn’t unexpected.

Jindal opposed the session, and the Louisiana Legislature has rarely been known for its independence, instead choosing often to take its cues from governors to whom lawmakers have willingly ceded power for years.

The Legislature has called itself into session only once since the modern state constitution was enacted nearly four decades ago, for the required task of redistricting and only then with the support of the governor.

Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, who had been trying to drum up support for the special session in the Senate, listed a litany of reasons lawmakers demurred on holding the session. He said some senators didn’t believe they had enough information about what budget changes were being proposed, some were concerned about the cost of a special session and others wanted more items included than the limited agenda floated by Richard.

There are also reasons left unsaid.

Changing the cuts would give legislators ownership of the budget-slashing that they’d have to defend back home. It’s often easier to blame a governor for the reductions, even as you criticize them.

Also, being at odds with Jindal could jeopardize legislators’ pet projects funded through the state construction budget, called the “capital outlay” bill.

Noticeably, the Jindal administration didn’t forward the capital outlay projects to the Bond Commission when the possibility of a special session was lurking, and several lawmakers claimed the governor was threatening projects to stymie support for a session.

The state’s budget is far different than what lawmakers passed when they wrapped up their work in June. Since then, Jindal has slashed spending by hundreds of millions of dollars, largely in response to a drop in federal Medicaid funding after lawmakers went home.

Legislators, including Jindal allies, often found out about closures and cuts in their districts within hours or less of the public announcement. Many expressed frustration.

However, several lawmakers said while they thought the governor mishandled the cuts, they questioned the worth of a special session without an alternate plan and they questioned whether enough lawmakers could agree on different budget-slashing to meet a veto-proof two-thirds majority of support.

With the special session idea fizzling, lawmakers shouldn’t expect much more inclusion from Jindal in his decisionmaking.

Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.