Legislators left Baton Rouge last month feeling pretty full of themselves for having defied the governor by rewriting his budget to their liking.
That included showing their compassion for the struggling parents of severely disabled children by appropriating more money for in-home assistance than did Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Their self-satisfaction, however, turned to outrage when Jindal vetoed the extra $4 million that would have whittled down the lengthy waiting list of parents needing help taking care of blind, autistic or paraplegic children. Democrats cried the loudest but even Republicans were appalled. "Wow?? Governor sticks it to disabled community," tweeted Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.
The governor was made to look heartless. But the Legislature, as he pointed out in editorial letters, was irresponsible. Noting his administrationís increased funding for disabled assistance since 2008, he charged that the Legislature added more money this year without the means to pay for it and other add-ons. Instead, the creative budget-writers had blithely instructed the administration to make $40 million in unspecified cuts to higher education and health care to balance things out. So why were they surprised when Jindal vetoed the extra $4 million for the disabled, as well as more money for family violence programs, childrenís health clinics and arts grants?
Legislators can still respond to the governorís rejection and come to the aid of those whose lives they profess to improve. But that would entail inconveniencing their own lives by returning to Baton Rouge for a special veto session. As many as they will disappoint, lawmakers will surprise none when more than half of either house return their ballots before July 11 opposing a veto session. Legislature to disabled community: wait till next year.
Now there was a simple solution for lawmakers to address the governorís veto without returning after adjournment. That was to have passed a budget about two weeks before adjournment, comfortably within the ten-day window the governor had to veto legislation. It would not have been easy to muster the two-third majority to override his veto, but it would have been far less difficult to do while legislators were still in session.
Veteran legislators can offer a hundred reasons why it is impractical if not impossible to pass a budget before the last day or two of the session. But the solution is no harder than what your mother told you when you failed to complete your homework at night. They just have to manage their time properly.
Legislators could adopt a timely budget schedule on their own, or they could make themselves do it. One of the more sensible pieces of legislation offered this year was a proposed constitutional amendment that set deadlines for the House and the Senate to pass the appropriations bill within 16 days of final adjournment.
The resolution by Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, passed the House, 90-9. But in a three-minute hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, chided Garofalo for a timetable that gave the Senate only a fraction of the time the House would have with the spending bill.
"How did you come up with those numbers?" demanded Donahue.
Garofalo replied, "If you like, we can push it back so the House has less time."
"I am going to push it back," retorted the chairman, before recognizing Sen. Claitor, who promptly moved to defer the bill, which is legis-speak for killing it.
Donahue was defending the upper chamberís prerogatives, but he did not need to be so dismissive. After all, it was he who shook up the Senateís leisurely approach to budget-writing this session. He did the unheard of by holding hearings on the appropriations bill while the House Appropriations Committee was still considering it. There is not one good reason why the two panels canít contemporaneously work through the time-consuming testimony of agencies, colleges and non-profits, since those officials all come with the same sob stories about needing more money. With that scheduling strategy, both houses could easily pass the budget in six weeks instead of eight.
Had the appropriations bill landed on the governorís desk on May 21 instead of June 6, he would have thought twice, three times, before drawing his red line through the $4 million for the developmentally disabled, knowing he would face an override vote the next day.
Instead, he was able to undo what the Legislature had done, because they had left the building, and he knew they werenít coming back. How convenient for them both.