Gov. Bobby Jindal goes light with budget vetoes

Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana state Capitol building in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana state Capitol building in Baton Rouge.

Governor cuts only 8 items from House Bill 1

Gov. Bobby Jindal didn’t need to refill his ink pen Friday when he tackled next year’s $24.6 billion state operating budget.

Using his line-item veto power, Jindal only struck eight things from House Bill 1, the state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts next month. After last year’s legislative session, Jindal issued 31 line-item vetoes on the budget.

One of the items stripped from the budget was a diversion of dollars that sparked concerns for New Orleans senior centers. Legislators wanted the Treme Community Education Program at Harmony House Senior Citizens Center to get more than half of the $450,000 set aside for 10 senior centers.

“This amendment, if not vetoed, will cause the closure of a number of Senior Centers in the City of New Orleans (whose) funding is dependent on these funds and curtail the operations of the other Senior Centers citywide,” Howard L. Rodgers III, executive director of the New Orleans Council on Aging, wrote the governor. Jindal agreed to intervene.

For the most part, though, Jindal left the budget alone, saving his veto pen for separate pieces of legislation. Jindal nixed shorter parole eligibility time for purse snatchers and compliance with the federal Real ID law. He leveled a fatal blow at legislation pushed by his frequent critic and fellow Republican, State Treasurer John Kennedy. A Thibodaux legislator threatened a veto override — although that’s probably unlikely — on the veto of legislation that sought to cut the number of contracts across state government.

Jindal also scribbled his signature on a number of bills. Driver’s licenses will be renewed every six years, instead of every four. State employees and public schoolteachers are in line for pay boosts. More moviegoers might be able to grab a beer with their bucket of popcorn.

At this point, Jindal has signed 808 bills into law from the recently wrapped legislative session, according to Louisiana News Bureau. He’s still deliberating on 61 bills, including the state construction budget. Twelve bills have been vetoed and six constitutional amendments were passed but do not require the governor’s signature.

The state operating budget is a mammoth bill that funds schools, health care and other public expenses. Public schoolteachers should get a pay boost for the second year in a row. State employees will get raises. Extra money was set aside to help families care for relatives struggling with developmental disabilities.

“We worked with the Legislature to pass another responsible, balanced budget that reduces the size of state government without raising raise taxes. This new budget increases funding in K-12 and higher education and health care services,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

Legislators always get antsy once the budget goes to the governor’s desk. As governor, Jindal can remove any line in the legislation that displeases him. He can hand out punishment for political disagreements by striking funding important to legislators or enforce his agenda.

Half of the budget vetoes — four out of eight — delved into health care issues.

The Jindal administration sparked controversy by proposing a reduction in funding for patient care in emergency rooms in an effort to discourage Medicaid patients from calling an ambulance for nonemergency medical needs. Emergency room treatment is expensive compared to a doctor’s visit. The Louisiana Hospital Association fought back, predicting some emergency rooms would close. The organization mounted an advertising campaign to get Jindal to back off.

Legislators sided with the hospitals, which feared getting less money from the government for patient costs. Jindal used his veto power to restore flexibility to possibly pursue a lower reimbursement rate for some emergency room care.

The veto came as a surprise and a disappointment for Louisiana Hospital Association President Paul Salles.

“We have stated throughout the process that it’s a really failed strategy, a short-sighted strategy to a much larger problem,” said Salles.

Salles said Jindal may have vetoed the language, but the state health agency has retracted proposed rules implementing the payment changes.

“They are working with us on a more global approach,” Salles said.

Jindal offered a sentence or two of explanation for his budget vetoes. He said the emergency room veto was necessary to allow for budgetary discretion during fiscally challenging times.

He enclosed individual letters for his vetoes of entire bills.

House Bill 1255 sought to reduce the time for parole eligibility on certain crimes of violence. The idea was to reduce prison overcrowding by only requiring some inmates to serve 75 percent of their sentence — instead of 85 percent — before becoming eligible to file a parole application.

The bill would have applied to manslaughter, purse snatching, forcible rape, terrorism and stalking, among other offenses.

“To lower the bar for release of offenders who have committed violent crimes like Forcible Rape, Manslaughter, and Human Trafficking is a step too far that could put our citizens at risk,” the governor wrote.

State Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, vowed to mount a veto override effort after the governor struck down House Bill 142. Overriding the governor’s veto would require the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature.

“I’m going to try to override it. It can’t hurt,” Richard said.

HB142 represents a now yearslong effort by Kennedy and Richard to trim the number of contracts in state government. The final version of the bill would have given the legislative budget committee authority over contracts exceeding $40,000. Savings from rejected contracts would have gone to higher education, which has suffered reductions in state general fund dollars.

“House Bill No. 142 could hinder the state’s efforts to continue to provide its citizens with timely, high quality services. Its arbitrary and burdensome process could cause significant delays and introduce uncertainty to executing a contract, which would make contracting with the state difficult and discourage businesses from seeking opportunities to provide services to the people of Louisiana,” the governor complained.

Jindal also vetoed legislation that would allow Louisiana to comply with the federal Real ID law. House Bill 907 would have allowed people seeking drivers’ licenses to choose whether to get a compliant license, which allow easy access onto domestic airline flights and to enter federal facilities.

Real ID provides unnecessary federal oversight of state-issued drivers’ licenses, Jindal wrote. The Eagle Forum, Louisiana Family Forum and the Tea Party of Louisiana asked for a veto citing concerns that the bill “would compromise Louisiana’s sovereignty,” he wrote.

Louisiana already complies with nearly every security mandate. But in 2008, Louisiana passed a law that banned the state from all of the federal requirements.

Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson, who was appointed by Jindal and who pushed for the legislation, said Friday that he is OK with the veto. The federal requirement that Real ID compliant identification is necessary for easier access doesn’t take place until 2016, so there is time next session to fashion a bill that would address the concerns of opponents. Also, one of the amendments added to quell those concerns may have inadvertently interfered with police investigations of identity theft.

The governor also signed:

  • House Bill 1252 and Senate Bill 582 to require drivers to renew their licenses every six years, instead of the current four. The change kicks in July 1, 2015.

“Ultimately, it’s going to result in less of a crush at the Office of Motor Vehicles by spreading it out,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor.

A state report this year put waiting times at some OMV offices at an hour-and-a-half because of budget cuts leading to staff reductions.

Claitor and state Rep. Franklin Foil, both Baton Rouge Republicans, sponsored the change.

The basic fees for regular licenses will increase from $28.50 to $42.75. Yearly costs will remain the same.

  • Senate Bill 654 to expand the number of movie theaters allowed to sell alcohol. Theaters would have to get permission from state and local officials before adding beer, wine and mixed drinks to their menus. The bill sparked fierce debate in the Louisiana House, with some legislators complaining that the proposal threatened family values.

Mark Ballard and Marsha Shuler, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter, @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.