WHAT A TANGLED WEB HE WEAVES
For the entire three months that comprised the 2010 legislative session, House Speaker JIM TUCKER held weekly news “briefings” on policy issues he chose to discuss. Senate President JOEL CHIASSON held none. Tucker craved and solicited media attention on his agenda, seeking not only to outdo the Senate president, but to “out Right” Gov. BOBBY JINDAL on issues. He was quoted routinely in major daily newspapers on a myriad of topics, particularly his desire to decrease funding to universities and charity hospitals in Louisiana. Chiasson, a moderate and low key Democrat, remained silent through it all. After stalling for weeks, Tucker finally moved a “Pontius Pilate” version of the state budget, which shirked the legislative responsibility of funding or cutting specific budget items by simply inserting language in the budget bill that “instructs the commissioner of administration to implement $65 million in cuts.” This move allowed him to continue to proclaim his fiscal conservative virginity, while dumping the responsibility of balancing the budget on the commissioner of administration. No confusion with Profiles In Courage here, folks.
At the Revenue Estimating Conference meeting (which officially recognizes how much money the state has to spend annually and which Tucker and Chiasson both sit on), Tucker committed himself to flying into the web; economists estimated that the state would experience a deficit approximately $260 million in excess of what was previously anticipated. Tucker, caught off balance and committed to his plan of balancing the budget by delegating cutting authority, was now flatfooted. In a moment of panic, he discounted the projections of the economists and vetoed the recognition of the additional shortfall in revenue — blocking the Legislature from officially acting on it. The fly was now approaching the web. Chiasson argued vehemently that it was fiscally prudent to recognize and deal with the projected deficit now, rather than push it off into a new budget year. Capital Media and even Tucker’s own true blood neo-cons found themselves philosophically on Chiasson’s side. The Senate Finance Committee then crafted a budget under the direction of Sen. MIKE MICHOT of Lafayette, a strong Chiasson ally, without the harmful and reckless cuts to health care and higher education the House had recommended in the Tucker-led version of the bill.
Then came the most critical 72 hours. The last Friday of the session, Jindal came in from directing the oil spill response to meet with Tucker, Chiasson and other House and Senate leaders and announced that he was urging the House to concur and adopt the Senate version. The Advocate editorialized that the Senate had been the responsible and statesmanlike party in the budget process, compared to the House. The fly was now tangled and wrestling with his entrapment in the web, becoming more desperate by the hour.
Seizing on this fact, Chiasson called for an all-out blitz on the House, to urge its membership to adopt the Senate version. He brokered a deal with House Appropriations Chairman JIM FANNIN to address House members’ local district funding needs in a separate bill on the final day of the session, Monday, June 21 — but only if the House concurred with the Senate version. Fannin was sold — and Tucker had now lost his appropriations chairman.
Next, Michot called in the chips on Sunday with his entire Acadiana House delegation, Speaker Pro Tempore JOEL ROBIDEAUX, PAGE CORTEZ AND NANCY LANDRY — in whom Michot had invested political capital to help elect — and all three of whom were predictable Tucker loyalists. According to a source with first-hand knowledge, Michot simply called all three in and delivered the same three-word message to each: “I need you.” Robideaux reportedly replied, “I understand.” And with that, the three Lafayette representatives, and then ultimately most all of the Acadiana delegation, joined in support of the Senate version.
Now the fly was desperate and moved into a frantic survival mode. Seeing the erosion of his Republican support, Tucker reached out to Democrats (whom he hardly even acknowledges in normal times), promising them additional seats on the powerful House and Governmental Affairs Committee, which will redraw reapportionment lines statewide, if they simply voted with him to reject the Senate version of the bill. But the Democrats, long disenfranchised by Tucker, and still bitter about his heavy handedness and punishments from the Speaker pro tem election on the first day of session, would have no part of it. Plus, they knew that by adopting the Senate version, it kept the bill out of the six-person conference committee, where Tucker wielded far more power on their projects of interest.
In the end, Tucker was able to muster only 34 votes to oppose concurrence with the Senate version recommended by Jindal, with 68 of his members (including more than a dozen Republicans who broke rank) opposing his plea to reject the Senate version. Media outlets commended Chiasson and the Senate on their responsible handling of the budget.
A brimming Chiasson high-fived Michot, and on the floor of the Senate Chiasson publicly praised the courage and spirit of compromise shown by House Appropriations Chairman Fannin, which was integral in crafting a solution — all without mentioning the speaker of the House once in his remarks. Once again, the spider saw no need to gloat over the prey he had snared and consumed.
Jindal a non-factor in legislative process thus far
Gov. BOBBY JINDAL’s appointment of Breaux Bridge native SCOTT ANGELLE as interim lieutenant governor clearly settled who the No. 2 person in state government is for the short term.
The lingering question in the halls of the Capitol? Who is No. 1?
Most observers would say it’s either Speaker of the House JIM TUCKER or Senate President JOEL CHAISSON, as Jindal has taken a series of legislative defeats in the past two weeks, which has largely been dwarfed by all of the media attention on the tragic oil rig explosion and spill.
Consider the following :
1. Last week the House Appropriations Committee, at Republican Speaker Tucker’s urging and over the vocal objection of the Jindal administration, passed legislation that gives legislative oversight to how the Louisiana Recovery Authority spends the remaining $3 billion in federal recovery funds. Tucker’s bill even allows local government the autonomy to spend the money in alternative fashions not related to rebuilding/recovery.
2. The House and Senate have thus far breezed through legislation Jindal opposes to tap into the Rainy Day Fund for $198 million (the fund contains more than $700 million) to help close the budget deficit for fiscal year ending June 30. This effort is being led by Chaisson, a Destrehan Democrat. The legislators are largely ignoring Jindal’s opening day of session plan to instead use funds reserved for an LSU Charity Hospital settlement with the federal government to close the gap.
3. Democratic Sen. JOE MCPHERSON of Woodworth, a Jindal opponent who is by no means considered a force in the Senate, was successful in legislatively repealing the administrative license plate fee increase Jindal implemented by Executive Order before the start of the session. McPherson garnered 21 votes, while the Jindal team lobbied hard against it. Even with State Police Col. MIKE EDMONSON and Chief of Staff TIMMY TEEPELL looking on in the Senate Gallery, Jindal forces could muster only seven votes to prevent the repeal. A stunning defeat.
4. Sen. ED MURRAY, a Democrat from New Orleans, was successful in passing Senate Bill 18 out of committee, over the vocal objection and opposition of the Jindal administration, which will give the Senate the power to confirm or reject Jindal’s appointees to the new board governing the soon-to-be-constructed Charity Teaching Hospital in New Orleans.
One would be hard pressed to find a week in legislative history that has been worse for a governor, or where such an erosion of the governor’s power has occurred. Legislators, and now apparently even the governor’s own legislative leadership, no longer fear opposing the administration — a rarity in Louisiana legislative history. While Jindal has been understandably very occupied with the state’s response to the oil spill, this series of defeats points out two major challenges he faces: His very shallow relations with individual legislators (he does not personally engage himself in the process) will make it very difficult for him to sway them to support him on politically sensitive votes; and, with the exception of the affable Lt. Gov. Scott Angelle, he has little to no horsepower on his staff in terms of legislative skill. This does not bode well for Jindal, as the state faces a number of significant financial, and now environmental, crises in the coming year.
Assessing Long-Term Speaker Pro Tempore Fallout
The recent election of state Rep. JOEL ROBIDEAUX to the No. 2 position in the House of Representatives was unprecedented in that it was the first time in at least the past 25 years that a leadership election came down to a public vote. Normally, heads are counted behind closed doors, and one candidate concedes, sparing the body of 105 from a divisive vote between its own. This old goat has nibbled around enough to clearly learn who the winners and losers of the Robideaux election were.
1. Lafayette and UL — As the No. 2 Man in the House, Robideaux will now be “in the room” when budget expenditure decisions are finalized on the House side, which could pay huge dividends for Lafayette business interests as well as UL.
2. NANCY LANDRY — She stuck with her home boy and mentor and was rewarded with a seat on the powerful House and Governmental Affairs Committee when Speaker Jim Tucker demoted some Republicans for supporting Robideaux’s rival, Democratic Rep. NOBLE ELLINGTON of Winnfield. As a committee member, she will decide on how legislative districts are redrawn and reapportioned population-wise. Very powerful position.
3. PAGE CORTEZ — With Robideaux now the man-in-waiting in terms of succeeding Jim Tucker as speaker of the House, Robideaux will focus his sights on being the next speaker of the House after the 2011 elections — and not run for the vacated Senate seat created by Mike Michot’s term-limited retirement. This opens the door for freshman Rep. Page Cortez, a Republican, to be Michot’s successor.
4. RICKEY HARDY — As one of only a handful of black legislators to support Robideaux, the Democrat places himself in position to be the go-to man in the Black Caucus. He’ll have the ear of the House leadership.
5. MIKE MICHOT — He reportedly worked hard for Robideaux behind the scenes, figuring it would not only enhance Lafayette’s influence, but likely help mend his past turbulent relationship with Tucker, as Robideaux can serve as a great conduit between the two.
6. FRED MILLS — He made Robideaux’s nominating speech and is credited with helping secure a handful of black votes, which proved vital. Under a future Robideaux speakership, Mills will be able to choose which committee he wants to chair.
1. JACK MONTOUCET — In the end, the Crowley Democrat stuck with his party versus his own delegation, making it unlikely he will see Michot or Robideaux break a sweat to help fund anything in his district.
2. BERNARD LEBAS — also stuck with his party versus his Acadiana delegation. Same will hold true on funding of his Evangeline Parish projects.
3. Franklin’s SAM JONES and Eunice’s MICKEY GUILLORY — see Nos. 1 and 2 above.
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