Saturday, May 21, 2011

A bloody process

Posted By on Sat, May 21, 2011 at 11:12 PM

The failure of a bill to merge the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) offers several lessons about the politics and psychology of legislative sessions. Chief among those lessons is that sometimes a bill’s fate has nothing to do with the merits of the bill itself. Another is the importance of timing. And luck.

After House Speaker Jim Tucker announced last week that he was pulling down his merger bill, several sources close to the effort told me that the measure actually had the 70 votes needed for passage earlier in the week. But, as often happens in the legislative process, stuff happened.

So what happened to the merger?

The short answer is: Bobby Jindal.

The governor wholeheartedly supports the merger idea, which, ironically, is one reason why it failed. To understand how that could happen, you have to understand that legislative sessions are complex, fluid events. Each has an emotional ebb and flow. Things can change quickly, and emotions often overpower logic.

In the case of the UNO-SUNO merger, emotions ran high from the get-go — and in the end other, unrelated emotions buried the merger. Here’s how:

The overriding issue of this session is the budget, which has been cut deeply. Unlike past years, the governor has no money to dangle in front of lawmakers in the form of pork projects or funding for favored programs back home. Lawmakers already have grudgingly recognized that they cannot “earmark” any programs this year, and that has many of them in a dour mood.

Last Monday (May 16), Tucker wanted to bring the merger bill to a House floor vote, but two key supporters were called away “on business.” At least one was tending to matters in his Cajun district, which was about to be flooded by the opening of the Morganza Spillway. Tucker had to delay the vote for two days.

Then came the bad luck.

The next day, a House committee voted to amend the governor’s budget by taking millions out of an economic development fund that Jindal considers vital. Committee members made the change to cover a revenue shortfall in the budget. The shortfall occurred for several reasons, not the least of which was Jindal’s failure to submit a budget that was actually balanced. Another factor was a recent decision by the Revenue Estimating Conference to lower revenue projections for the next fiscal year.

Jindal’s right-hand man, Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, called the committee’s action “fiscally irresponsible.”

That comment irritated lawmakers — including some Jindal allies — to no end. After all, the governor’s budget as submitted was “balanced” only in theory. It depended on selling several state prisons (an idea that drew so much opposition that Jindal quickly dropped it) and on passage of a constitutional amendment that isn’t even on the ballot yet.

Rainwater’s “irresponsible” jibe hit a raw nerve, causing some lawmakers to retaliate by backing off the UNO-SUNO merger — as a way of “sending a message” to the governor. It wasn’t a wholesale defection, but enough of them bolted that Tucker could see what was coming. He pulled the bill.

It all goes to show why legislating is so often compared to making sausage: it’s a bloody process.

It also underscores the importance of timing. Had Tucker been able to bring the bill to a vote last Monday (May 16), it probably would have passed. Instead, the opening of the spillway delayed the vote, and then Rainwater’s comment turned the tide.

Which offers the final lesson: sometimes politics all comes down to luck, be it good luck or bad.

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