Amendments seek to get around Jindal

Weekend to Remember
March 11, 2014
Birds of a Feather
March 11, 2014

Lawmakers frustrated with the policies of Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies have turned to the Louisiana Constitution, finding it the only path to bypass the power of a governor and his veto pen.

Of the 57 proposals filed to amend the state’s constitution, at least a dozen of those are aimed squarely at Jindal: ending some of his budget maneuvers, ousting education leaders he supports or sidestepping his opposition to policies that could otherwise be handled in statute.

Supporters of the measures offer a similar refrain of letting Louisiana voters decide if they want to change the constitution. If two-thirds of both the House and Senate vote in favor of a proposed amendment, it is placed on a ballot during a statewide election for voters to approve or reject. Amendments sidestep the governor’s desk, so he can’t veto them.

Lawmakers already find it difficult to pass something against Jindal’s wishes and regularly can’t muster enough support to try to overturn one of his vetoes with the same two-thirds vote that an amendment requires for passage. So, getting the two-thirds vote won’t be easy.

It’s a symptom of the traditional power wielded by a Louisiana governor who has the ability to line-item veto favored projects from the budget and has wide authority over government contracts and appointments.

Even though Jindal has fewer than two years left in office and low approval ratings, lawmakers have shown a reluctance to regularly defy his wishes over the last six years.

But some legislators, both Republican and Democrat, are seeking to change that with their constitutional amendments. They’re hoping Jindal’s lame-duck status and fissures that have developed between lawmakers and the governor’s office will help them garner enough votes.

Democrats are offering constitutional amendments to enact the Medicaid expansion allowed under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Jindal vehemently opposes the expansion, and lawmakers rejected the idea last year. But Reps. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, and Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, are asking their colleagues to revisit the debate.

Nevers also has proposed to add to the constitution a new statewide minimum wage for larger employers that would be set at $9.50 per hour, up from the hourly federal rate of $7.25, and raised annually with inflation. Jindal opposes increasing the minimum wage.

Other measures target maneuvers used by the governor to balance the budget.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, seeks to prohibit the use of increased tuition revenue at Louisiana’s public colleges to replace state funding for the campuses.

For several years, Jindal – backed by lawmakers in the annual budget – has cut state financing for higher education as colleges raised tuition, essentially shifting the costs for running campuses to students and their parents.

Jindal’s budget proposal for next year would stop the practice since the state’s revenue forecasts are improving, but Leger wants it banned permanently.

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, wants to make it tougher for Jindal and governors that follow him to funnel money through the state’s coastal fund for general operating expenses in state government.

Jindal wants to put $51 million in one-time cash into the state’s coastal protection fund, meeting the requirement the dollars be used on one-time projects. Then, the governor proposes taking a similar amount from the fund to plug into next year’s operating budget.

Geymann calls it money laundering, designed to get around state restrictions on the use of one-time dollars and surplus money.

The southwest Louisiana lawmaker also is pushing a constitutional amendment to elect the three at-large members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, rather than letting the governor appoint them.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, wants the constitution changed so the state superintendent of education is elected, rather than appointed. Currently, the governor has a heavy hand in the appointment.

Those proposed constitutional amendments are fallout from disputes over educational policies that have been backed by Jindal.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.