Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Kept Speaker: Fiscal conservatives got rolled by the Governor, but Jim Tucker did just fine

When Governor Bobby Jindal swooped into Baton Rouge last Friday to back the Senate version of the state's two budgets (the current fiscal year and the upcoming fiscal year), House Speaker Jim Tucker bemoaned the fact that the Governor had backed two budgets that did not reflect the values of fiscal conservatives.

It's a view Tucker has repeated on a number of occasions since the session ended. It was a frustrating end to the session for Tucker, who spent most of his time frustrating friends and foes alike. The trouble started with his ham-handed handling of the election of Joel Robideaux of Lafayette to the position of Speaker Pro Tempe. Tucker dished out some tough love to people who he said had broken commitments made to him on the vote. A tinge of bitterness stayed in the air for the rest of the session.

But, fate stepped in during April when Governor Bobby Jindal decided to relocated to Plaquemines Parish to lead the state's response to the BP Gulf Gusher. That cat being away gave Tucker room to play and, man, did he have a run.

Tucker took control of the budget process. He doggedly pursued the long-cherished dream of Louisiana conservatives of closing large swaths if not all of the LSU Hospital system (formerly the Charity Hospital System. He chased his plan to consolidate all of the higher education boards in the state only to find that his handling of the Robideaux election and aftermath would deny him success on this score.

He was steadfast in his position on how the state could borrow from and repay money from the so-called Rainy Day Fund. He refused to recognize the final estimate of the state's economists on the size of the hole in the current year budget, thereby setting the stage for a climactic showdown with the Senate and his nemesis Senate President Joel Chaisson II.

All the while, Tucker and his favorite Democratic Representative Jim Fannin went to the four-corners offense on the budget, holding onto to it as long as they possibly could. When the House approved HB-1 with just two weeks left in the session, the bill reflected Tucker's vision of the future of state government.

It pretty much scared the hell out of everyone in the Senate and anyone with a conscience. At a time when the state is giving more than $7 billion in tax breaks to businesses and the well-heeled, Tucker's budget would have shut down four or more LSU Hospitals, forced the closure of several state college campuses, and made yet another round of deep cuts in Medicaid. Total state layoffs including the hospital closings, the campus closings and the other reductions in state payrolls could have reached 10,000. That number does not even address the loss in healthcare jobs in the private sector resulting from the Medicaid cuts.

At a time when Jindal and his allies were running around the state and in federal courtrooms predicting economic Armageddon over the temporary loss of about 3,000 to 5,000 deep water drilling and support jobs, hurling that number of state workers out of their jobs at the same time created something of an appearance issue that even the Governor could not ignore.

Tucker was unfazed. Maybe he knew the drilling job numbers were a sham or maybe he just does not care about the impact of massive job losses on the state economy; either way, Tucker pushed on.

Then Jindal flew in and took away all of Tucker's fun. The Speaker ended up voting against the budget, as did group of other House members. In the end, Tucker found out that Speakers only have power so long as the Governor lets them have it, or if the Governor is preoccupied with other matters.

It is testimony to just how draconian Tucker's budget was that eliminating 3,000 state jobs, cutting $25 million from Medicaid reimbursements, $25 million in cuts for higher education, and guts funding for the arts was considered something of a victory.

Whatever relief might exist could well be short-lived if state revenues continue their downward trend, wrecking the assumptions on which the budget was built. But, if needed, those cuts will be made by the Jindal administration.

On the Sunday, the second-to-last day of the session, Tucker got some help cushioning the blow of his Wiley Coyote-like defeat on the budget. He won legislative approval to have the swank apartment in the Pentagon Barracks that had previously been the realm of the Lieutenant Governor designated as the quarters of the Speaker of the House.

That apartment had been extensively remodeled by Mitch Landrieu when he was Lieutenant Governor. Landrieu spent about $1 million in taxpayer money on the renovation and that drew howls from fiscal conservatives.

So, to the Speaker go those spoils. For Tucker, now a man with a considerable list of foes in the Capitol and the House, the challenge will be to keep that job title that brings the perk heading into the final year of his term.

The perk is his — if he can remain Speaker.

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