Stephanie Grace: Jindal veto pen still a powerful tool

By Stephanie Grace

New Orleans bureau

As always, Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a written explanation for each bill he vetoed last week, and for each line item he axed from the budget the Legislature passed before adjourning for the session. And as always, Jindal’s veto messages didn’t tell the whole story.

Jindal said he killed some of the Legislature’s initiatives because they were unnecessary, or too costly, or not well thought out. Left unstated, over and over again, was an additional reason: Because he can.

He may have hit a rough patch lately, but even politically weakened Louisiana governors remain formally strong, simply by virtue of the powers invested in the office. Jindal seems to particularly enjoy reminding fellow lawmakers of that fact, and he did so once again after they decamped from Baton Rouge.

Sometimes, the possibility of a veto is just part of the legislative debate. Although it passed both houses with broad support, for instance, Jindal was long expected to at least consider rejecting Senate Bill 162, which was designed to set up rules governing surrogate parent contracts.

Jindal cited concerns by conservative interest groups to which he has close ties, including the Louisiana Family Forum, that the bill would have commercialized pregnancy and would have had a “profound impact on the traditional beginnings of the family.” (He neglected to mention a different but entirely valid concern, that by limiting surrogacy contracts to married couples, the bill would have discriminated against unmarried prospective parents, including same-sex couples).

But sometimes, Jindal blindsides the bill’s advocates. That’s when the maneuver comes off as a more of a power play.

Officials at the board that oversees the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center said they were surprised and disappointed that Jindal vetoed House Bill 516, which would have allowed the convention center, which is plotting a major expansion, to issue nontraditional tax-free bonds. Jindal said the bonds would have counted against the state’s total debt limit, something the bill’s sponsor, House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, disputes.

Jindal also killed another New Orleans-oriented Leger bill, this one to finally dedicate money for public safety, sanitation and other services around Harrah’s casino — a condition of the casino’s deal with the state, but still an annual fight. Jindal wrote that money to meet the state’s obligation has been included in the general budget for three years running, although in prior years the city had to fight for it.

The line-item veto is a particularly potent tool. Jindal axed millions from the hard-fought $25 billion budget that he’d made a point of praising in the session’s waning hours. The list of vetoed items includes $4 million that would have gone to trim a lengthy waiting list of families seeking home-based services for the developmentally disabled; as an explanation, he cited lawmakers’ separate vote to limit increases to the Medicaid program. Also cut was money for children’s clinics, domestic violence programs and arts programs.

In some cases, the money Jindal trims seems too paltry to justify the negative headlines. But he does get to flex some muscles and send some messages. Affected legislators routinely threaten to reconvene the Legislature for an override session, but practically speaking, that just doesn’t happen.

If nothing else, Jindal’s free use of the veto pen serves as a reminder. Sure, his signature initiative from last year, a vast expansion of school choice, has hit several legal and political roadblocks. Yes, his big idea for 2013, a total overhaul of the state’s tax structure, died under its own unpopularity before the session even started. And OK, his relationships with many lawmakers are strained, and the end of his second term is visible on the horizon.

But that’s the beauty of the veto. The governor doesn’t need to persuade, lobby or horsetrade with anyone to get the last word. Unless lawmakers go to extraordinary lengths to fight back, the rules just give it to him.

Call it one of the many perks of the job.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.