Too soon to call Jindal a ‘lame duck’

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Anyone who is declaring Gov. Bobby Jindal a “lame duck” should remember that Louisiana’s governor has widespread authority outside of the legislative branch and the power of the veto pen.

Jindal couldn’t get his sweeping tax rewrite through the Legislature this year, leaving him with a bare bones legislative agenda. Lawmakers said they heard little from the governor after the defeat of his tax plan, and they largely crafted their own version of the 2013-14 budget.

That began to drum up talk that Jindal, nearing the midpoint of his second term and unable to run again, was becoming less relevant in Louisiana’s legislative and political conversation and that his power was waning.

Seems to be a bit too soon for such assertions.

Jindal’s still deciding the course of hundreds of millions of dollars in spending and making decisions that will affect Louisiana for decades after he’s gone.

The Republican governor is dismantling the state’s charity hospital system, he’s keeping the state from expanding its Medicaid program under federal law and he’ll chart the course for construction spending in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

With his veto power, Jindal’s jettisoned a slew of items overwhelmingly backed by lawmakers, including millions of dollars in add-ons to the budget that received near unanimous backing from the Legislature.

Even critics of the governor, who want to tout the idea Jindal’s becoming a lame duck, acknowledge it’s a long-shot at best to get lawmakers back to the Capitol to try to undo any of Jindal’s vetoes.

Legislators continue to regularly cede their authority to Jindal, following tradition in a state where a governor historically has had a heavy hand in setting the agenda, deciding spending and crafting policy.

Within a year, Jindal will have completely taken apart Louisiana’s public health care system that takes care of the poor and uninsured, with little legislative decision-making involved in many of the deals.

By January, nearly all of the LSU-run hospitals and their affiliated outpatient clinics are set to be privatized, turned over to non-university operators for management.

Area lawmakers may have had modest involvement in some negotiations, but the Jindal administration drove the contracts, crafted them and sought no legislative approval before signing them.

Legislators turned away attempts to give themselves more authority over the deals, even as they complained they had too few details about contracts that will affect thousands of people in their regions and the training sites of most of the state’s medical students.

Two LSU hospitals have been shuttered – in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles – with their inpatient, surgery and emergency services turned over to private hospitals. University-run hospitals in New Orleans, Lafayette and Houma were leased to nonprofit corporations that already run private hospitals in the regions.

Three more public hospitals have privatization contracts signed, with those transitions set for October and January.

Elsewhere in health care, Republican lawmakers have sided with the governor to keep Louisiana from offering government-subsidized health insurance to thousands of people with the Medicaid dollars available under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Jindal has been adamantly opposed to the Medicaid expansion, disputing estimates that suggest the state could save millions of dollars with the program’s expansion while offering health care access to as many as 400,000 people who don’t now have it.

And in other spending decisions, lawmakers have again refused to make the tough choices on which projects should be in line for state construction dollars, giving Jindal the authority to pick and choose – and to politically reward and punish in deciding which ones will move ahead.

The Legislature packed the construction budget for the upcoming year with nearly $330 million more in projects than the state can afford to start. That leaves the governor to decide which projects to forward to the State Bond Commission for lines of credit.

Jindal may have tough times getting legislation passed, but suggesting he’s lost control of decision-making seems premature.

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