By Stephen Winham ©2012
Because the lines have become so blurred recently, we often forget the reason our founding fathers created three separate branches of government in the 1787 U.S. Constitution. It was simple, really – to protect citizens from an abusive, authoritarian government by spreading and providing checks and balances on power. The separation of powers doctrine implicit in the constitution is applied, in varying measure, by both the U. S. and state governments.
While the judicial branch is responsible for preserving the law and resolving legal issues, the legislature is responsible for actually creating laws, including those making appropriations. The executive is responsible for administering these laws. Though the three branches are considered equal, the legislative branch can easily become the most powerful. If this is true, why is the governor so inordinately powerful in Louisiana?
From my perspective, the clearest example of how the doctrine of separation of powers is disregarded in Louisiana is the way the state’s budget is adopted. In many states the legislature considers budget proposals submitted by the governor (the Executive Budget), but then develops its own proposals, often including a document very much like the one submitted by the governor.
In Louisiana, the Legislature accepts the executive branch budget and the original appropriations bills (which are drafted by administration, not legislative, staff) as submitted. Any changes the legislature makes are by amendments to the bills. This should have the value of making a clear distinction between what the governor is requesting and what the legislature chooses to appropriate for state services. However, to the extent the legislature ultimately rolls over and plays dead, as it has over the last 6 years in ways unprecedented since the late 70s, it has ceded its greatest power – that of appropriation – to the executive branch.
The way the budget is handled is far from the only example of how the executive branch overextends its power via a compliant, and some would say, complicit legislature. Again, why is this so? Is it because the governor actually has extraordinary power by law? No, and remember it is the legislature that makes the law in any event.
I believe the legislature actually enjoys and benefits from being controlled by the governor. No matter what happens in Louisiana government these days, an individual legislator can excuse his/her actions to constituents by claiming s/he could not buck the governor, no matter how hard s/he tried. It’s a win-win situation for the legislature and the governor. The governor continues to wield unbridled power and enjoy positive national press while the legislature can quietly blame him for anything that goes wrong. Both the governor and, ironically, legislators are free to take full credit for anything that goes right.
The governor and members of the legislature are elected to serve the people’s interests. When the bulk of power is in the hands of one person, the value of the separation of powers doctrine is lost, including the extent to which the people’s interests are represented. This was apparently treated humorously when our four previous governors met in a recent forum, but it is no joke.