Our Views: Making laws by the rules

The Louisiana Constitution says “Every bill, except the general appropriation bill and bills for the enactment, rearrangement, codification, or revision of a system of laws, shall be confined to one object. Every bill shall contain a brief title indicative of its object.”

Simple enough, in the Louisiana Constitution — until you get into politics.

Two lawsuits challenged the constitutionality of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education bills from last year — both sweeping in their effects, and wrapped into only two bills, now Act 1 and Act 2 of 2012. Different judges differed on whether the “single object” rule was violated. The cases go to the Louisiana Supreme Court, but the issue of the “single object” rule is more important than the dispute over these two measures.

Why? First of all, because the Legislature’s own leadership did not object to the sweeping nature of the education bills, which each affected widely different sections in previous law. A concern ought to be whether the legislative leadership was taking its duties seriously only insofar as the governor allowed.

And that concern strikes at the heart of why this issue is important.

Why do many constitutions have the “single object” rule? Typically, it is to prevent legislatures from cobbling together bills that command a majority, based on the wisdom of “I’ll vote for your bill if it includes something I want.” Such “logrolling,” as it’s called by political scientists, isn’t in the public interest. Deals are cut; debate is shortened; executive review of the legislative body is difficult politically.

But Louisiana, as always, is a little different. The idea of avoiding legislative logrolling is certainly legitimate, but that is not the threat of legislative arrogance that the “single object” rule protects against. That hardly exists, when the governor handpicks leaders of committees and the House and Senate.

Rather, a “single object” rule stands in the way of a governor — uniquely powerful in Louisiana’s setup — wrapping his agenda into one or two bills and ramming them through the legislative process with little opportunity for full understanding and debate.

Which is, essentially, what Jindal did with Acts 1 and 2 of 2012.

More extensive debate and closer inspection of what was proposed might not have resulted in a different outcome on those measures. The governor was too powerful, lawmakers too supine, opposing interests confused and incoherent.

But we believe, and urged then, that most parts of the governor’s proposals should be single bills and debated separately, so that lawmakers and citizens would know more about the proposals. Any number of issues wrapped in the education bills could have been the occasion for daylong, or longer, hearings in the education committees of House and Senate.

Whatever the final outcome of the lawsuits on the education bills, it is already clear that legislators have come to a better understanding of what the lax enforcement of a “single object” rule can do to them. In discussions with Jindal and his aides on the ideas for tax changes in the upcoming session, the administration has heard loud and clear that the education debate should not be the model for the tax issues.

That is an implicit acknowledgment of the railroading of the education bills through the process in 2012. But this issue is not about, or only about, the concern about Jindal’s tax bills, but relates to any number of future bills that could come down from the Governor’s Office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol.

Lawmakers should find some way to make a statement that excessive power in the Governor’s Office cannot override the sensible constitutional mandate in the “single object” rule.