Our Views: The decider is upstairs

It’s almost as hard as a Common Core question: What happens when there is too much pork in a barrel?

In the Legislature, it means subtraction — with the governor instead of lawmakers getting to decide what pork-barrel projects get built.

In the new fiscal year beginning July 1, the state’s capital outlay bill listed a large number of projects. The House tried to keep the bill’s list as short as possible.

That is not for altruistic reasons, but for the politics of subtraction: If the list comes in under the amount the state is allowed to spend, then most of the projects in the bill can be funded. Some might be delayed for other reasons, but the end result of the process would be a legislative product.

As sponsor of the capital outlay bill, House Bill 2, Rep. Joel Robideaux tried to make the budget for projects match the state’s means. He lost that battle. The Senate overloaded the construction budget and refused to budge.

At the end of the session, with the Senate adamant about adding projects, the House had to go along.

The rationale for adding more projects than there is money available: The State Bond Commission might decide to fund some projects and not others.

“If you’re in the bill, you have a chance to get funding at Bond Commission. If you’re not in the bill, there’s no chance,” said Robideaux, R-Lafayette. “People would rather be in the bill and have a remote chance than not be in the bill altogether.”

But there’s another level to this subtraction game, and that is the process of deciding what gets funded. And the Senate addition to the pork barrel means that it is Gov. Bobby Jindal who gets more power to reward friends and punish enemies.

While the Bond Commission is chaired by Treasurer John N. Kennedy, an independent elected official, most of the members are Jindal appointees and legislative leaders. The latter are also by definition Jindal allies, as the governor has a disproportionate role in naming House and Senate leadership.

So it is the governor’s power that is enhanced when House and Senate cannot decide on their own what projects are listed in the capital outlay bill and what are left out.

The power of subtraction, deciding that a recalcitrant legislator’s district doesn’t really need the matching funds for its swimming pool or convention center, is one of the ways that lawmakers allow governors — not just Jindal but those before him — to have more leverage in the legislative process.

Robideaux had the right idea, but genuine legislative independence requires a capital outlay process that is not governed from upstairs where the governor’s office is located.