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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Veto Showdown Coming?

Posted By on Tue, Jul 15, 2008 at 7:51 PM

(Note:  This has been slightly revised and updated from an earlier post. Note one correction: the start date of a veto session would be Saturday, Aug. 2, not Monday, Aug. 4, as previously posted. That gives lawmakers only 13 days to decide whether to have such as session.)


Gov. Bobby Jindal’s “record-breaking” 258 vetoes seem contrived to give him some cheap headlines while actually having a miniscule impact on the overall state budget. The political backlash from lawmakers, however, could be huge. There is open discussion among lawmakers — including some of Jindal’s top legislative allies — about the possibility of a veto override session.


THE CONTRIVANCE — A press release from Jindal’s office proudly proclaims in the first paragraph: “Governor Jindal’s 258 vetoes in HB1are more than double the vetoes for all the state’s previous 12 budgets combined.”


Just in case we didn’t get the point, the release continues in the very next paragraph: “Previously, Governor Kathleen Blanco had 39 line item vetoes in her house budget bills during her entire four years in office. Governor Mike Foster had 81 line item vetoes in house budget bills during his term, and over the last 12 years combined, there was a total of 120 line item vetoes in state budget bills.”


A key question with regard to Jindal’s vetoes is whether he achieved that “record” number by accident or design. A very knowledgeable source tells me that Jindal’s Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell asked Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp’s office before the vetoes were announced how many vetoes the last two governors had exercised. That pretty much tells us what Team Jindal’s priorities were in this little exercise: headlines, not fiscal accountability. It’s all about the resumé, folks.


THE NUMBERS — Jindal is focusing on the number of items vetoed perhaps to draw attention away from the overall fiscal impact — or lack of impact — of his line-item vetoes. When he talks about 258 vetoes, it sounds as though he took a buzz saw to the budget. However, $16.14 million out of a state budget of $29.5 billion is barely 1/20th of 1 percent of the operating budget. Put another way, it’s less than 6/10,000 of the state budget — the proverbial spit in the ocean.


To be sure, Jindal sliced some questionable “NGOs” and some genuine waste (a high school alumni association? get real!) from the budget. At the same time, he gutted the budgets of Boys and Girls Clubs statewide, not to mention money for the Jazz Fest, several YMCAs and YWCAs (including the Dryades YMCA, which takes kids off some of the meanest streets in New Orleans), the homeless in New Orleans and several senior citizens’ programs.


THE IMPACT — Jindal appeared to spread the pain statewide. Still, more than $6 million of $16 million in cuts come from the greater New Orleans area (Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and the Northshore). The real impact, however, will be measured in unfunded local social service programs that affect everyday people.


In once case, Jindal cut operating money for a local senior citizens program that had been funded by the state for three decades. The state had already spent roughly $1 million to rebuild the senior citizens’ community center — then Jindal cut the money they needed to move in later this summer.


One of the biggest items that Jindal cut was $500,000 for the Jazz & Heritage Festival. According to one source, the administration felt that the Jazz Fest was “too local” to satisfy the governor’s “statewide or substantial regional impact” criteria. Huh? The Jazz Fest too local? Apparently the governor has never been to the Fest … or looked into its financial impact.


THE BACKLASH — Forget about the pay raises. Lawmakers are really up in arms about cuts to their local programs. Sure, it’s easy to call much of it pork, but one man’s pork is another man’s poultice.


A veto override session is a real possibility in this case, mostly because it’s not that difficult to convene such a session. In fact, under Louisiana’s constitution, a veto override session happens automatically 40 days after a session ends — unless a majority of either the House or the Senate notifies their respective presiding officer in writing of their desire not to have such a session. (See, Article III, Section 18(C) of the Louisiana Constitution.)  This year, 40 days after the end of the recent session is Aug. 2.  A majority of House or Senate members would have until 5 days prior to that date — or July 28 — to submit in writing their desire not to convene. If a veto session occurs, it cannot last more than 5 days, so the session would run from Aug. 2-6 at the longest.


In most years, lawmakers are so tired of each other (and, as Jindal has noted, governors typically don’t veto hundreds of bills at a time) that the last thing they want to do in early August is reconvene for a one-week veto override session. This year could be the exception to that rule.


In fact, some of Jindal’s top legislative allies are already kicking around the idea, starting with Senate President Joel Chaisson, who sent a “personal and confidential” letter to all senators expressing his disgust at the vetoes. Chaisson criticized Jindal for not taking time “during the session to work with legislators to give us an opportunity to reallocate our expenditure authority in advance so there would be no need for vetoes after the fact.” [Emphasis in original.] Chaisson says Team Jindal “ignored” his advice about how to handle appropriations the administration did not like.


“I am just as disgusted as many of you with how this process has been handled by the governor and his administration and fully intend to take steps to make sure that this does not occur again,” Chaisson adds. “Because of recent events and what the media has done to distort the truth, I think that we need to seriously consider whether or not a veto session makes sense at this time. Nonetheless, I encourage each of you to defend the merits of any project of yours which was vetoed and justifiably criticize the governor for vetoing it. The appropriate time will come soon enough to re-assert the independence of the Senate and remind the governor that we are an equal branch of government and deserve to be treated as such.”


THE STAKES — Chaisson later made it clear to The Times-Picayune that he does not think a veto session is necessarily the wisest course of action at this point. He may well be right. Lawmakers are plenty hot, but they run the risk of overplaying their hand — and playing into Jindal’s hands — if they muster a majority for an override session and then fail to muster the two-thirds needed in each house to override any veto.


Legislators I spoke to shortly after Jindal announced the vetoes were taking the notion of an override session very seriously. Ironically, some of them were among those who thought voters would cool off about the pay raises after a while. Now the shoe’s on the other foot: will lawmakers cool off in a week or two, or can they sustain their anger long enough to reconvene and override Jindal’s vetoes?


Lawmakers have 13 days to decide. Sources say some lawmakers are making phone calls today (Tuesday, July 15) and counting votes. Veto overrides are rare in Louisiana, mostly because our governors are so powerful. If they don’t opt for an override, it’s going to be a long four years for them, because their failure to stand up to Jindal will only embolden him and his team. On the other hand, if they opt for an override session, they better have the votes lined up.


I suspect Jindal has made a calculated decision to pick this fight with lawmakers. After all, he’s still fairly popular, whereas the Legislature is not — even though lawmakers did most of the heavy lifting on ethics reform. It’s quite possible that Jindal sees this fight as a no-lose situation for him. During the days leading up to a possible veto session, he can campaign against “the corrupt crowd” (remember that one from his campaign?) and the “old-style politics” of the Legislature and probably whip up public opinion against lawmakers. Look for the GOP spin machine to start cranking out press releases from Rush Limbaugh and other “pundits” praising Jindal for his “courageous” vetoes. Even if his veto is overridden, he will portray himself as a modern Thomas More standing on principle against the forces of expediency and corruption.


No matter what the outcome, this will look good on his resumé — like so many of his contrivances. 


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