Some governors don’t treat legislators like equal partners. And they’re not. Almost any governor can dominate both the policy agenda and how it’s likely to turn out. “If you’re a legislator and you look at the governor, he’s calling the shots, whoever he is,” Rutgers political scientist Alan Rosenthal said -- at the recent annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, no less.
But some Louisiana legislators think Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has taken things too far. Jindal has never been keen on consulting with legislators, but after their last session ended, Jindal spent the summer slashing nearly $1 billion in spending that legislators had approved. He cut some programs by 34.5 percent (35 percent reductions would have required legislative approval) and shuttered major facilities such as a prison and a mental hospital.
All this without so much as a by-your-leave from legislators. In some cases, the cuts came down from the governor’s office with less than an hour’s notice. “You can’t legislate courtesy,” says longtime Louisiana political observer John Maginnis. “He may feel it’s the easiest way to do it. If you have to make a painful cut, you just do it and don’t give people forewarning so they can raise hell.”
Legislators don’t deny that Louisiana’s budget situation called for action, particularly in light of a drop in federal Medicaid reimbursements. They just believed that they should have been part of the conversation. “Most of the cuts might be right, but we have no input,” says state Rep. Dee Richard.
Richard has been trying to convince his colleagues to call themselves into special session to address Jindal’s cuts. He hasn’t had success. The legislative leadership still has Jindal’s back. And Richard and other legislators unhappy with the governor’s do-it-himself budget cutting are worried that the current levels of outrage might dissipate by the time the Legislature reconvenes for its next session, which isn’t until March.
It’s possible that they’ll find opportunities for revenge at that time. In most states, a governor who is too high-handed will often find his agenda a tough sell for the rest of his term. Some governors become accustomed to having their vetoes overridden on a bipartisan basis. “If the governor ignores the legislators, they have the power to ignore him back,” says Thad Kousser, co-author of a new book, The Power of American Governors. “You can’t sit back in the governor’s chair and think any of these things are going to happen automatically.”
Louisiana might be a special case, however. Its governors get to appoint many top legislative leaders, including the House speaker and committee chairs. “My advice to you, if you want a consultative relationship with the governor,” says Rosenthal, “is move to a different state.”