Opinion: Sam Hanna, Jr. – Litmus test for ‘ruling class’

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Litmus test for ‘ruling class’

In a surprising move, the House Appropriations Committee on Monday dramatically altered the proposed budget Gov. John Bel Edwards sent to the Legislature for its consideration for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

As you may recall, Edwards’ proposed spending plan for state government for the 2016-2017 fiscal year included gut-wrenching cuts in funding for a number of programs including one that has evolved into somewhat of a sacred cow, especially for Louisianians who have children attending college in the state. Of course, we’re talking about TOPS — the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

Under the Edwards budget, TOPS would realize a more than $180 million cut in state funding. The proposed cut threatens scholarship dollars for students who did the extra work academically to meet or exceed the requirements in high school that were necessary to qualify for a TOPS scholarship. The proposed cut also would negatively impact students who already are enrolled in an institution of higher education.

Critics of Edwards’ proposed cut for TOPS cried foul long ago, alleging the new governor targeted TOPS to drum up support for another tax increase or two in a second special legislative session, supposedly to be convened following the conclusion of the ongoing regular session. Remember, the Legislature ramped up the state sales tax in a special session in February. The tax increase, according to Edwards, would not generate enough money for state government to meet its most basic needs in servicing the general public including fully funding TOPS in the new fiscal year. Accordingly, Edwards maintains he will call the Legislature into another special session following the regular session, or in early June. Like the first special session, the second special session is necessary to raise taxes since the state Constitution prohibits lawmakers from entertaining revenue measures in a regular session in an even-numbered year.

Meanwhile, on Monday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry methodically pulled apart the Edwards budget to direct enough money to fully fund TOPS for the new fiscal year. The Metairie Republican found the money by cutting funding for the Department of Health and Hospitals.

Henry also stepped out onto a limb, so to speak, and eliminated state funding for the Office of Inspector General. Almost immediately, Inspector General Stephen Street went on the offensive and described Henry’s move as a “black eye” for Louisiana in light of the propensity of elected officials in the state to engage in corrupt practices. After all, the Inspector General’s office was created to combat corruption though one would be within reason to suggest the Office of Inspector General could be guilty of cherry picking the cases it cares to tackle. Which is understandable since the Inspector General answers to the governor.

Yet, Henry wasn’t done on the “meddling” front. Though quietly talked about for weeks, the Appropriations Committee removed funding for the Attorney General’s office from the primary budget bill — House Bill 1 — and carved out the Attorney General’s budget for funding in an entirely separate measure. Currently, the Attorney General’s funding, like all other statewide elected officials, is included in House Bill 1 each year, which means it’s subject to being tinkered with by the governor. By moving the Attorney General’s funding out from under the governor’s purview, the state’s top lawyer doesn’t necessarily need to worry about angering the governor if the Attorney General and the governor become at odds on litigation that impacts the state.

And there’s plenty that this governor and this Attorney General don’t agree on including lawsuits brought by landowners against oil and gas companies and lawsuits parish governing bodies have filed against the oil and gas industry. It’s no hidden secret Landry is an ally of oil and gas. It’s also no hidden secret the governor has close ties to plaintiff’s attorneys including attorneys who are suing oil and gas companies. However, this governor in recent months has discovered the oil and gas industry can be counted on when it matters, and that’s when it’s time to raise money for his re-election campaign in 2019.

Regardless of the reasons given publicly or behind closed doors for removing the attorney general’s budget from the governor’s reach, the move was controversial and it most likely will survive the litmus test when the House of Representatives takes up House Bill 1 on Thursday. In all likelihood, the Henry budget — not the Edwards budget — will be sent to the Senate. In the Senate, the Henry budget, for all practical purposes, will get tossed in the nearest waste basket and the Edwards budget will come back to life.

In time, a conference committee composed of the leadership from the House and Senate will get together behind closed doors to hammer out a compromise on the state budget for the new fiscal year. TOPS will emerge a winner. Chances are the Attorney General will get the short end of the stick. The press will give the governor high marks for standing firm, and Henry and the rest of the Republicans in the House will catch the blame for anything and everything that doesn’t seem right or kosher in the eyes and minds of the “ruling class.”

Sam Hanna is a state
political writer.