Sunday, April 25, 2010

King Tuck: Equal Opportunity Exasperator

When then Governor-elect Bobby Jindal announced his support for Republican Jim Tucker to be Speaker of the House in late 2007 there were guffaws when Jindal said he was doing so as part of his desire to avoid the kind of intense partisanship that had come to plague Washington, D.C., where Jindal had spent a fair amount of time over the previous decade.

Tucker, after all, had been leader of the House Republican Caucus in the previous term where he had a well-earned reputation for ratcheting up partisanship through his opposition to various initiatives of Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco.

That Tucker could somehow shed his partisan skin by ascending to leadership of the full House seemed ludicrous to many.

This week, Tucker proved his doubters wrong as he took up the work of unraveling Jindal’s plan to close budget gaps in the current and next fiscal years with the same enthusiasm and tenacity (obstinacy?) as he did in foiling Blanco’s budget moves four years ago.

Jim Tucker is proving himself to be an equal opportunity disrupter of the well-laid plans of Louisiana governors.

King Tuck Reshapes State Government

In ways unprecedented for a legislative leader, Jim Tucker has had a powerful impact on reshaping state government in Louisiana. In 2009, Tucker led the successful push wrest away control of what will replace ‘Big Charity’ hospital from LSU. He also directed the creation of the Tucker Commission that has proposed a radical reshaping of higher education in the state.

As the recent dustup over the election of a new speaker pro tempore demonstrated, Tucker is perfectly willing to punish anyone who crosses him, regardless of party affiliation.

Tucker won election to the House representing District 86 (a district that includes both the gated community of English Turn and the blue-collar community of Terrytown) in 2001. He is term limited. Tucker is using his stint as speaker to advance some long-standing conservative critiques of Louisiana state government regardless of whose toes get stepped on in the process.

He's had his brush with ethics issues, but that did not stop the "ethics governor" from supporting Tucker's election as speaker.

Tucker and Jindal share a general approach to government — a general dislike of government as a deliverer of services and a strong aversion to tax increases. That shared belief is a significant factor in the state’s current budget crisis. Tucker has repeatedly stated that “the state does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.”

Tucker, even more than Jindal, has had a hand in creating the current crisis, in no small measure thanks to his role as head of the House Republican caucus during Governor Blanco’s tenure. In the final year of Governor Blanco’s term, her push for business tax cuts was at least partially motivated to try to win Republican support (PDF) for increased spending on education, which Republicans (led by Tucker) paid lip service to but generally opposed.

Tucker is not always opposed to increased government spending. In 2008, Tucker supported legislation that would have tripled the pay of legislators. Tucker, who led the fight in the House in support of the pay raise, tried framing the issue in good government terms.

“We want to have good, quality people running for the Legislature, to get a good cross-section of the state," not just the wealthy who can afford to spend time in Baton Rouge for at least one session a year, Tucker said. "I am concerned about the average Joe who can't afford to come here. ... This is not the priesthood where you take a vow of poverty."

No, in Tucker’s view, that vow should be required of public employees. Tucker has led the effort to restructure state employee retirement programs to shift from defined benefit pensions to 401k programs that significantly reduce the state’s liability for those pensions, but also — as has been shown in the private sector — significantly lower the income of those retirees covered.

Calling Jindal’s Bluff

In the current session, Tucker has sought to use his power as Speaker with less hesitancy than in the past, the most public instance being his punishment of those (including Republicans) who voted against Lafayette independent Rep. Joel Robideaux in the election for speaker pro tempore. After a close public vote, Speaker Tucker changed committee assignments for a number of members who he said had not kept their word to him regarding the vote.

The blatant power play sparked alarm from the governor’s office and even among some of Tucker’s most ardent apologists.

If anyone thought the reaction might have tempered Tucker’s approach they were proven wrong this week when Tucker announced that the House would not take up the matter of fixing the $360 million hole in the budget for the current fiscal year until May when there would be only a matter of days left in the fiscal year.

Tucker’s move focused on the element of Jindal’s plan for fixing the hole that appears to have crossed two of the Speaker’s trip wires. The first was taking money set aside to pay a settle a dispute with the federal government over the use of Medicaid funding. The governor may have abandoned his former aversion to using one-time money to fix recurring budget problems, but Tucker has not.

The second trip wire was how Jindal proposed to cover the payment on the settlement, which everyone expects will have to be paid in the state’s 2010-11 fiscal year. Stunningly, Jindal announced that he is counting on President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats being able to win an extension of the economic stimulus program which would mean an additional $300 million or more in federal Medicaid funding for Louisiana. Jindal is not only counting on the money, he declared himself confident that the D.C. Democrats would prevail on the issue.

Tucker apparently recoiled at Jindal’s admission of his dependence on national Democrats to bail the state out of its budget crisis.

This week, Tucker called Jindal’s bluff, saying he would delay the House taking up the proposed fix for the current budget for a couple of weeks to see if Jindal’s political prognosticating was worth banking on. Tucker said he would wait to take up the measure to give congressional Democrats the opportunity to advance their Recovery Act extension.

Tucker’s move puts legislators in a precarious position. They are constitutionally mandated to balance the state budget each year. Waiting until mid- to late-May to fill this hole will mean that whatever solution to the shortfall is implemented, will be rushed into place. With Jindal and Tucker both opposed use of the so-called rainy day fund to close this year’s budget gap (they’d rather use that to plug holes in the next fiscal year budget), and with revenue options non-existent within the already compressed window to deal with the problem, the debate between Tucker and Jindal will be over how to make the use of one-time money appear to look like recurring money.

An Equal Opportunity Exasperator

Jindal, like Blanco before him, is learning that it’s no fun to have Tucker working against you. Tucker was a thorn in Blanco’s side, particularly in the final two years of her term, and that was when he merely headed a caucus. Now, as speaker, Tucker is proving that he is committed to using the powers of his office to advance the approach to government that he believes in.

For Jindal, Tucker’s lesson in the art of the bi-partisanship approach to exasperating is coming at an inopportune time.

With the Senate ready to work with Jindal to close the budget gap now, Tucker has emerged as an obstacle to the governor’s budgetary slight of hand. With bigger budgetary holes to fill in the next fiscal year (and potentially still larger ones to fill the following year), Jindal is using every trick he can muster to stave off the kinds of budget cuts in healthcare and higher education that he knows will do serious damage to the thing that matters most to him — his re-election prospects.

Tucker, on the other hand, won’t be speaker after the 2011 election. He is at the peak of his political power now. There are no guarantees that he can win election to higher office. If he is going to make an impact on the shape of state government, now is his time to do it.

The divergence in the scope and timing of Tucker’s ambitions and Jindal’s are stark.

Jindal’s aspirations are not confined to Louisiana, but they rest on he is re-election as governor next year. His chances of doing that are going to rest in large measure on his ability to address the state’s budget challenges without being perceived to be inflicting lasting damage on the state’s future prospects (something already called into question by supporters of higher education and healthcare in the state). Jindal’s national ambitions also rest on his fidelity to the conservative credo against tax increases. As his admission of his dependence on President Obama’s recovery spending makes clear, Jindal has hit an intellectual dead end on that path.

Tucker, on the other hand, would not be particularly bothered by the prospect of having to make the kinds of cuts in state spending that would put Jindal’s re-election in jeopardy. Tucker is as true a believer in the conservative approach to governance as Jindal is an opportunistic one. This is a clash of style as well as substance.

Tucker Controls Jindal’s Fate

There will likely be two ugly fiscal year budget fights between now and the statewide elections next year — the budget for the next fiscal year that will be decided in the current session and the budget that will be decided in next year’s election year Regular Session. Jindal’s political fate, in large measure, is tied to how those budgets address state needs. Tucker will have as much influence on the final shape of those budgets as will Jindal.

Kathleen Blanco was not running for re-election and found dealing with Tucker exasperating. Jindal prizes re-election more than anything. Tucker is in position to set the price of that prize to an unprecedented extent. Not since Willie Rainach rose to prominence as a leader of White Citizen Councils in the late 1950s and early 1960s has a single legislator had so much power to influence the political fate a governor.

The dance between Jindal and Tucker that plays out over the next few weeks will shape the political terrain for next year’s elections. Tucker's tenure as speaker sunsets with that same election that will determine Jindal's future. In the interim, what transpires in Baton Rouge will revolve around Tucker.

Jindal is in a tight spot. He has hitched his political fate to a pair of political polar opposites: Barack Obama and Jim Tucker.

Can he really be the smartest guy in the room?

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