The myth of co-equality

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Dan Juneau – The LABI Report

Both our national and state constitutions establish governments based on a balance of power among three coequal branches. That approach embodies a beautiful symmetry but, in practice, the noble concept of the Founders flounders at the hands of humans. On the federal level, powerful and intrusive federal courts have taken on far more power than Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin ever dreamed of granting them. On the state level, it is the executive branch that dwarfs the landscape, not because it has seized power but because the legislative branch has abdicated much of its own.

The subject of an independent Legislature surfaced recently when Rep. Troy Hebert was removed from his chairmanship of the House Insurance Committee after voting against the Blanco administration on a sales tax renewal bill. Rep. Hebert is an intelligent and feisty young man who has preached the gospel of a more independent Legislature ever since he entered the House as a very vocal member of his freshman class.

From the governor’s point of view, Rep. Hebert didn’t have to accept the Insurance Committee chairmanship if he didn’t want to support the administration on votes the governor considers critical. She reasons-as have governors before her-that it is hard to ask legislators who aren’t in leadership positions to support her on tough votes if her leadership is voting against her.

Perhaps Rep. Hebert didn’t want to vote for the sales tax out of personal philosophy, or maybe he thought the temporary tax should have been renewed at the same two-year interval as it had in the past. To some who want to see more legislative independence, that is appealing since, in their minds, every two years a governor has to pay serious attention to the Legislature-at least temporarily. It would appear that Rep. Hebert has learned a valuable, if painful, lesson. If half the Legislature acts independently, it reflects a movement. If an individual does the same, it creates a casualty.

It is unfortunate that only the removal of Rep. Hebert has been focused upon as a sign of a weakened Legislature. During the previous administration, the governor fired a sitting Speaker of the House who is supposed to serve at the pleasure of House members. Another sign of a lack of independence occurs when legislators simply give their votes to the presiding officer when a key issue-especially an important bill to the administration in power-comes to the floor. For example, in the recent Special Session, the sales tax renewal vote got exactly the 70 votes it needed to pass. A few days later, an amendment opposed by the administration to one of the business tax phase-out bills was defeated by one vote. A little later, a motion to send the same bill to a conference committee-a motion favored by the administration but with significant opposition on the floor-resulted in another one-vote margin. A coincidence? Hardly. A more likely scenario is that the presiding officer had been given more than enough votes to play with to get to the magic numbers.

The citizenry of Louisiana would be better served by more legislative independence, not as a means to oppose whoever is holding the office of governor, but to carry out the constitutional role of the body. But if no more legislators concur with this notion than have in the past, voices of dissent will continue to resemble road kill under the rotunda.

DAN JUNEAU is president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.