Political Horizons: Legislature cedes authority to executive

State Rep. John Bel Edwards remembers the time a few years ago when he and a few colleagues were asked to talk to incoming Louisiana House freshmen about legislative independence.

“All of us took the position that we are not an independent body,” said Edwards, D-Amite.

“We are in theory,” he added. “We are not in practice.”

That point was driven home yet again last week when, after 12 public hearings, a joint House-Senate committee opted not to recommend any specific tax exemptions that should be ended.

The Revenue Study Commission that was launched with some fanfare in July collected lots of public testimony.

The 14-member panel included some of the Legislature’s top figures, including Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville.

The chairman was House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette.

The panel delved into a topic that turned suddenly relevant when Gov. Bobby Jindal announced plans to try to repeal Louisiana’s individual and corporate income taxes during the 2013 regular legislative session, which begins on April 8.

That would likely mean higher sales taxes, and likely the elimination of some tax exemptions, to keep the overhaul revenue neutral, which Jindal says he wants.

Yet despite all that, the panel took a pass on initiating ideas of its own — plans on a big topic that actually originate with legislators — in favor of waiting for the governor to unveil his own proposal.

Once again the Legislature will play a subservient role to the executive branch and let Jindal dictate the terms of the all-important tax debate. Lawmakers will review, dissect and sound off on the governor’s plan.

However, unless something changes, they will merely be reacting to what the governor wants, not crafting any comprehensive plan of their own that could be debated with Jindal’s.

The role of distant second fiddle to the executive branch is nothing new for the Legislature. Experts say it is engrained, and has gone on since former Gov. Huey Long wielded power.

In 2010, four of the Legislature’s most powerful committees spent months considering ways to tackle the state’s then-$12.5 billion backlog of road and bridge projects.

All that came out of it was a forgettable resolution that merely spelled out lots of options.

Former Govs. Buddy Roemer, Kathleen Blanco and Edwin Edwards joked about the issue in December during a rare joint appearance.

The trio, one Republican and two Democrats, were far apart on lots of things.

Yet all three fondly remembered how they bossed the House and Senate, named its leaders and held life-and-death sway over the fate of bills.

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

In this case Jindal’s mere entry into the debate seemed to make the panel and its mission irrelevant.

“I do think the proposed tax swap took much of the steam out of the committee,” Kirby Goidel, a professor of mass communications at LSU, said in an email response to questions.

“Why make strong recommendations on just one part of the process when everything seems to be in flux and when any proposal might generate significant opposition?” Goidel asked.

Rep. John Bel Edwards said he “knew they were not going to recommend anything serious that would help the state” because panel members backed even more tax exemptions in 2012 amid state budget problems.

Jindal, while still powerful, is on the downhill side of wielding influence.

He was sworn in for his second term just 13 months ago, and it is premature to call him a lame duck.

Yet he is far enough into his time as governor for lawmakers to offer plans of their own, not just an amendment here and there to a Jindal-backed bill.

Last week Kleckley, a Jindal ally, asked the governor in a letter to let legislators look at the plan before the session starts.

In other words, the legislative branch needs to see what the executive branch wants to do, so the debate can begin.

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