Political Horizons for Dec. 23, 2012

Governor control a Louisiana tradition

For those who think the Louisiana Legislature resembles a separate branch of government, think some more.

Three ex-governors, two Democrats and a Republican, all but put that notion to rest earlier this month when they were part of a rare joint appearance.

And what they said reinforces the long-held view that, in Louisiana, 144 House and Senate members mostly say “yes” or “no” to what the governor wants but rarely craft their own plans that shape the state.

Officials and residents of most states would find it unthinkable, even laughable, that lawmakers cannot even pick their own leaders.

Yet former Gov. Buddy Roemer pulled no punches when describing how legislative leaders landed their jobs during his term.

“I appointed the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate,” he said.

The same practice goes on today.

Most states rely on legislative leaders to craft their own plans on issues like public schools, higher education and health care.

Those plans then take their place along with what the governor proposes, and any final product is often a blend of ideas.

Not only does that not happen in Louisiana, even the idea of House and Senate leaders initiating their own agendas is far-fetched.

“If the governor doesn’t get behind it, it is not going to happen,” said former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who held the job for 16 years.

Most voters do not even think of state lawmakers when it comes to solving problems.

“We do know that the people look to the governor for leadership on big issues,” former Gov. Kathleen Blanco said.

All of this is relevant as Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is about to begin his sixth year in office, duels with what passes for legislative “independence” and “rebellions.”

Earlier this year, anger among some Republican House members about the use of one-time funds to finalize the state’s $25 billion operating budget got some attention.

However, in the end, the governor got the budget pretty much the way he wanted, which he and his predecessors almost invariably have done.

Rumblings of a special session — this one called by state lawmakers — also made the rounds briefly.

Legislators tried to sell the idea as a way to make the governor consult them on key budget issues — think of that — like governors do in most other states.

Yet that push died too, and most taxpayers do not even know that it happened.

Other examples abound, and it has gone on for years.

Issue after issue, including health care, aid for higher education and public school overhauls, repeatedly features the governor proposing and lawmakers reacting rather than initiating much on their own.

Kirby Goidel, a professor of mass communications at LSU, notes that it is natural for legislatures to defer to executives.

“What is striking about Louisiana is that gubernatorial power is rooted mostly in informal norms as opposed to formal authority,” Goidel said in an email.

Robert Hogan, an associate professor of political science at LSU, stated in an email that it is “pretty amazing” to observe state lawmakers.

Hogan said “there is great deference given to the Louisiana governor in setting the agenda, and there exists a great unwillingness to vote against the governor.”

He said one key factor for today’s practice in the State Capitol is the way former Gov. Huey Long wielded power, which he said “has become part of the state’s tradition and now represents the status quo.”

Picking House and Senate leaders is one such example.

However, it is so unusual, at least in the United States, that it speaks volumes about who holds power in Baton Rouge.

Jindal never talks publicly about having the Legislature under his thumb.

Neither did his predecessors, nor did they call for moving more power away from them and to the Legislature when they held office.

Yet all three clearly enjoyed having the upper hand.

“Governors love to control the Legislature,” Blanco said.

Will Sentell covers the Louisiana Legislature for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com.