Legislature gives governor what he needs
The legislative session that concluded Monday perhaps marks the apex of Gov. Bobby Jindal's power over that other branch of government, and the peak came early.
Getting off to a fast start, the governor got the Legislature to pass the education agenda he wanted and, at the end, the budget he needed. In between, he got only a small piece of the sweeping retirement overhaul he sought, but it's enough for him to claim credit for doing what no other governor has done.
Legislators managed to hold the governor's attention for about three weeks, long enough—in near-record time and with minimal amendments—to pass his sweeping education bills expanding private-school vouchers statewide, ending tenure as teachers know it and rolling back the powers of local school boards. Fittingly, the governor held the bill-signing ceremony at a Catholic school, for he might not have felt welcomed in many public schools.
Jindal's mastery over the Legislature was likened to that of Huey Long, as Republicans and those Democrats allowed chairmanships moved in orderly lockstep. The first to get out of line, incorrectly voting Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, was stripped of his committee vice chairmanship by the Speaker of the House, who was handpicked by the governor.
At this point, Jindal's hold over legislators seemed so strong that he could switch to remote control and get back on the road, crisscrossing the country to raise money for Republicans and to boost his national profile as the vice presidential sweepstakes began.
Back at the Capitol, however, the Jindal juggernaut began to hit speed bumps.
Next up on his change agenda, an overhaul of the debt-laden state retirement system, at first appeared set for the fast track. Yes, state employees were burning up the phone lines and staking out hearing rooms, but the governor's team seemed confident that legislators would do as told.
Yet with passive resistance from nervous legislators, those bills ran into trouble. As questions and objections mounted, the governor's forces began pulling back and rewriting retirement bills—sometimes in the middle of committee meetings—and to publicly retreat on the most controversial items: extending the retirement eligibility age to 67 and increasing employee payroll contributions by three percentage points.
It was almost comical to hear retirement package sponsor Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, assure colleagues of how well things were moving as he took another two steps backward.
Eventually, the only major bill to pass, to set up new retirement accounts similar to 401(k) plans, will only affect new employees. After that, the governor's floor leaders waved the white flag on the rest of his package.
Jindal gets credit for taking on the retirement problem that past governors have avoided, but now he sees why they did. The question now is: Will he try again next year on measures that did not pass or declare victory and withdraw?
My guess is Plan B.
More trouble surfaced. The prison sale bill became the prison lease bill, before it faded away. The plan to transfer the Office of Elderly Affairs to the health department, strongly opposed by senior citizens, was abandoned, too.
Even the education agenda, so broadly supported in concept, began catching more heat once legislators learned the details of decreased state support to local school districts and some questionable voucher applications. The Minimum Foundation Program, the K-12 funding plan, squeaked through the House after angry debate, with sharp attacks coming from Republicans.
It was also Republicans who most strongly disagreed with the governor's budget. The conservative wing of the caucus, egged on by U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Treasurer John Kennedy, sternly criticized Jindal for budgeting one-time money for recurring expenses, despite the fact that colleges and health care are already struggling with deep cuts.
With an uprising in the House, the governor turned to his reliable budgetary allies in the Senate, who, along with House Democrats, Republican chairmen and the stray GOP moderate, passed a spending plan.
"We go through this every year," said an untroubled Jindal, as this session of the Legislature, for all its hard twists and turns, ended the way it usually does.
As lame-duck status inevitably sets in, the governor might never achieve, or even attempt, anything as ambitious as the education laws he got legislators to pass. But with that trophy on the wall, there is not much more from them he needs to ask.
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