Political Horizons: Legislature driving solo

Fifty workdays have passed since the Louisiana Legislature convened March 10 and Gov. Bobby Jindal has spent 16 of them — roughly one-third — on the road.

While Louisiana lawmakers have wrung their hands over the budget and payday loans, Jindal has visited New Hampshire, Chicago, Nashville, Mobile, Dallas, Washington, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Lynchburg, Va.

He has become editor-in-chief, criticizing President Barack Obama through blasts at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in The New York Post tabloid, and Hillary Clinton in Politico, the online D.C. political news website of choice for Jindal leaks and op-eds.

He told the National Rifle Association Second Amendment rights are God-given and Liberty University that Christianity is under attack.

When asked if he’s running for president Jindal tells Louisiana reporters that he has the job he’s always wanted. He told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast panel on April 1, “It’s no secret; it’s something I’m thinking about.” He joked at a St. Patrick Day’s breakfast in Nashua, New Hampshire, that he had no plans to run but would return again and again to New Hampshire to say that over and over.

At the beginning of the legislative session, Jindal announced that his priorities included better funding education, changing the state’s litigation environment and better handling human trafficking. Far from being left to fend for themselves, Jindal says lawmakers have made great progress.

“We’ve been meeting with legislators every week of the session. We’ve been very, very forceful on all our priorities,” Jindal said. “We’ve done a good job beating back bad bills.”

An argument could easily be made that this overwhelmingly Republican Legislature and Jindal are so politically in sync that the governor is free to gallivant without worry of returning to a state with a higher minimum wage or expanded Medicaid coverage.

And, at least in the House, a majority of the legislators are OK with the $25 billion state budget, which is working its way through the process. The majority is equally at ease with Jindal’s handling the federal government’s recent rejection of the arrangement for financing the privatization of the state’s charity hospitals.

It could cost Louisiana taxpayers upwards of $400 million but Jindal aides say that appeals and negotiations will take care of the issue.

State Rep. Brett Geymann shrugs his shoulders. “That’s what they say. And you were here, that’s what the majority believes,” said the Lake Charles Republican who heads the “fiscal hawks.”

At least some of the legislators are worried that the impact of those negotiations will have on an expected shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2015, Geymann said.

A lot of the money available for the fiscal year that begins July 1, such as from tax amnesty, just won’t be there next fiscal year. That’s about $975 million, he said.

Then, prices will increase, so the costs will go up a hundred million or so just to provide the same services. Louisiana could easily face a $1 billion or a $1.5 billion shortfall.

“That’s a hole we’ll have to fill,” Geymann said. “A lot of us think we should be looking at that now, not next year.”

Pushing legislators to do the right thing when doom is not immediately pending or during an election year, requires the focus of a full-time chief executive, says Amite state Rep. John Bel Edwards, who leads the House Democratic Caucus and is planning to run for governor in 2015. He says that would be the job of the chief executive.

“I see no sense of urgency,” Edwards said.

“This session he’s obviously been more hands off,” said state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette. As chairman of a money committee, he was at a few strategy meetings the governor attended prior to the start of the session. But the substantive meetings have been, as they usually are, with the cabinet secretaries that run the executive branch departments, he said.

This session Jindal’s aides haven’t been hanging over the chamber’s rails beckoning legislators to come get their instructions. For the most part, legislators have gone their own way, Robideaux said.

Does this mean the Louisiana Legislature, for the first time since 1812, is asserting itself as a co-equal branch government?

Robideaux grinned, it could have been a smirk, “Nah, we’re not quite there yet.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.