While conflicts between Democrats and Republicans will figure prominently during the legislative session that convenes April 8, Gov. Bobby Jindal's politics also have created a turbulent political climate, one in which some of his traditional enemies will embrace him while some old friends will stab him in the back.
As regards the latter, it was only appropriate that the release of Jindal's tax-swap plan last week coincided with the Ides of March, known best on the Roman calendar for the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Senate in 44 B.C. Leading up to March 15, Jindal unveiled his $24.7 billion annual budget.
These days, the governor fares much better in Louisiana's Senate than Caesar did in Rome's, but he may be saying "Et tu?" to some conservative House Republicans. The mostly GOP "fiscal hawks" in the House once were among the governor's stalwart supporters, but they began turning on him last year over budget policies. They sought deeper cuts — and no one-time revenues spent on recurring expenses — in a budget that was already lean and hungry.
Among those digging in this year is Rep. Christopher J. Leopold, R-Belle Chasse. Leopold says he will not support the governor's proposal to use millions in one-time revenue for annual, or recurring, expenses. "I am not a fan of one-time money in the budget," Leopold says, siding with the hawks, who now are organized under the banner of the Budget Reform Coalition.
Democrats, on the other hand, generally are more amenable to that notion, especially when the alternative is cutting critical services. That's how it worked in prior years. This year, with the help of the Jindal-friendly Senate and anticipated support from committee chairs and vice chairs, it probably will be the Dems once again who help the governor pass his budget.
At least that's the conventional wisdom. The 11 Democrats who represent Orleans Parish, however, are beginning to resemble a composite of Brutus and Cassius; they are as wary of the governor's ambitions as they are of his policies. Many are considering opposing the one-time money in Jindal's budget.
The governor's budget is built upon several contingencies, ranging from land sales and refinancing debt to legal settlements and fund raids. That last part has Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, worried. The administration wants to redirect $100 million from a fund holding hotel-motel taxes earned by the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to plug holes in next year's higher education budget. The administration vows to pay back the money through the capital outlay program for construction bonding, even though the state's borrowing capacity is running low.
That scheme amounts to one-time money for recurring expenses, Morrell says. "Democrats from New Orleans are strongly considering a position that agrees more with the tea party and fiscal hawks," adds Morrell, who chairs one of the Senate's judiciary committees. "It all makes for strange bedfellows." Linking the convention center issue with the one-time money debate could garner the undivided attention of the administration, he says.
If Jindal's poll numbers remain in free fall and his keystone legislative victories, such as education and retirement reforms, continue being opposed by Democrats and overturned by Republican judges, it may become even tougher for the governor to distinguish his allies from his adversaries. The opposition already senses an opportunity to draw blood as Jindal's national ambitions come out of the shadows fully and he reaches further stateside with an controversial tax-swap plan.
As is the case with the budget, Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, says the tax plan is far from finished, leaving enough time for many lawmakers to pick sides. "They're going to be torn to pieces and put back together," he says of the governor's major policy packages for 2013.
A growing number of lawmakers say privately that Jindal plays the part of the Roman general a little too well, treating lawmakers as plebeians while seeking greater glory for himself. Even with an odd coalition of Democrats and Republican committee chairs protecting his flank, the governor would be well-advised to learn from Caesar — and watch his back.
— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at Jeremy@jeremyalford.com. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.