The Public Likes the Governor's Agenda. Here's Why That May Not Matter.
With just over a week left in the session, the Louisiana Legislature has largely spurned Governor John Bel Edwards’s program. The difficulties the governor has faced trying to move his agenda is probably most evident in the fight over the state’s budget. To deal with ongoing shortfalls, Edwards has called for raising additional tax revenue and avoiding further cuts to services such as healthcare and higher education. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction – largely rejecting tax increases and instead advancing a budget with significant cuts, particularly to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Beyond the budget, most major bills supported by the governor have struggled as well. The governor called for raising the minimum wage and requiring equal pay for men and women who do the same work, but the Senate Finance Committee killed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour and the prospects for equal pay legislation recently advanced by the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee are dim if it makes it to the House, which has already killed two similar bills.
While not officially part of the governor’s package, a bill to raise the state’s gasoline tax by 17 cents per gallon to fund transportation infrastructure projects would go a long way to fulfilling one of his policy priorities. Yet, the bill’s success is by no means guaranteed. It narrowly survived the House Ways and Means Committee with only a minority of Republicans on the committee supporting it and now must garner a two-thirds majority on the heavily Republican House floor. The bill's author now seems prepared to accept a reduction to a ten cent increase.
Even on criminal justice reform, the priority where the governor has had the most success in the legislature, his preferred package had to be significantly scaled back to have a chance at passage.
On its own, disagreement between a Democratic governor and a Republican-led legislature is not at all surprising. What makes this situation intriguing is the backdrop of public opinion. The legislature may oppose the governor’s agenda, but the public is generally on his side when it comes to these issues. Consider the following:
- 73 percent of state residents believe tax increases should be part of a solution to the budget (although most of these individuals also want tax increases to accompany spending cuts)
- 53 percent would rather pay higher taxes to fund health care, while only 12 percent prefer to cut health care spending
- 76 percent of state residents support increasing the minimum wage in Louisiana to $8.50
- 91 percent support the state requiring employers to pay men and women the same amount for the same job
- 72 percent support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, and 75 percent favor shorter sentences for non-violent crimes
- 61 percent support raising the state’s gasoline tax to fund transportation infrastructure by 15 cents per gallon, and 53 percent support raising it by 20 cents per gallon
With the exception of the point about the minimum wage, each of these comes from the 2017 Louisiana Survey, fielded just before this year’s legislative session began. The minimum wage point comes from the previous year’s survey.
Why would the legislature be so tough on proposals that are so popular among the public?
There are several possible explanations for this disconnect, but I want to focus on three that seem especially relevant.
1. Opinions (sometimes) change.
Public opinion about well-worn, familiar issues tends to be stable and changes only slowly. However, when it comes to less familiar topics, people are often quite sensitive to the arguments and frames they hear from elected leaders, the media and their peers. It works this way: If I have not thought much about an issue before then I will rely on whatever considerations about it come to mind when I am first asked about what I think. Later, as an issue becomes more prominent and I hear different sides make their case, I will also think about the arguments and frames they offer when deciding what I think. Even if I initially liked some proposal, I may change my mind as I hear more negative things about it.
An example of this can be seen in an experiment about opinions on criminal justice reform in the 2017 Louisiana Survey. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of three different versions of the question about shorter sentences for people convicted of non-violent crimes. The first group was simply asked what they thought about shorter sentences for people convicted of “non-violent crimes.” The second group was asked what they thought about shorter sentences for people convicted of “non-violent crimes such as fraud or using illegal drugs.” The third group was asked what they thought about shorter sentences for people convicted of “non-violent crimes such as burglary or selling illegal drugs.” Each group was asked about non-violent crime, but the framing of non-violent crimes differs greatly in severity.
What happened? The first simulates what responses might be like before any major debates on the issue. Support for shorter sentences was highest among that group: 75 percent. It slipped to 69 percent with the examples of fraud and using illegal drugs and to 54 percent with the examples of burglary and selling illegal drugs. Getting people to think about crimes of different severity – albeit all technically classified as non-violent – dampened support. Sure enough, opponents of the initial criminal justice reform package also emphasized the severity of crimes when debating the issue before the legislature.
Perhaps the public thought one way about the governor’s agenda, but as they have heard the debate unfold in the session they have come to think something else.
It’s important to note, however, that this does not work so easily on every issue. It is more likely to happen when the public does not already have a lot of information about an issue, which brings us to…
2. People do not know what is going on in the legislature
Most people do not read blogs about state politics and policy (sorry folks). In fact, many individuals pay only intermittent attention to politics and, consequently, know very little about the policy decisions made in government.
For example, in 2015, the Louisiana Survey included a question asking respondents whether state taxes had increased, decreased or stayed about the same over the previous seven years (so, from Governor Jindal’s inauguration in January 2008 until the time of the survey in January 2015). During that period state taxes had been cut, and revenue dropped by nearly $3 billion. Yet, 54 percent of respondents believed taxes had gone up over the previous seven years.
If potential voters do not know what their government is actually doing, then elected officials have more latitude in deciding how closely to stick to the public’s policy preferences.
3. Constituents rarely punish their legislators for how they vote
Legislators do not have much to fear from their voters. This may come as a surprise given a common understanding about how democratic accountability ought to work: Legislators will vote in line with their constituents' preferences, in part, because those constituents can toss them out of office if they do not. This is not just a naive, hopeful theory of democracy. Plenty of empirical evidence from political science shows that voters hold presidents (and their parties), members of Congress and governors accountable for their policy decisions while in office.
State legislative elections, which have received much less scholarly attention, stand apart. The work that has been done on these elections consistently shows that legislators do not suffer much at the ballot box for policy decisions and outcomes. Research by Louisiana State University political scientist Robert Hogan (see here and here) shows that the degree of difference between a legislator's voting record on economic policy issues and her constituents' preferences does not have much of an impact on the share of votes she receives come reelection time. Related work from Saint Louis University political scientist Steven Rogers (see here) shows that the distance between legislators' roll call voting record and the ideology of their districts has little impact on their electoral fortunes. In contrast, state legislative elections results are strongly correlated with national election returns in those districts (see here) - a pattern I have also noted for Louisiana.
Another line of research shows that state spending cuts and tax increases have only a small effect on state legislators' prospects for reelection (for example, see here). In Louisiana, there is no evidence that voters are holding legislators accountable for the state's budget challenges. Cuts to state spending for health care and higher education have been very unpopular since the Louisiana Survey began in 2003. Yet, incumbent legislators have almost never lost bids for reelection over the past ten years as those areas have endured significant and repeated cuts. Indeed, over the last three state election cycles – 2007, 2011 and 2015 – only one incumbent state senator lost a bid for reelection… even that case was because redistricting placed her in a district where she had to run against another incumbent senator, forcing one of them to lose reelection.
It would appear, then, that legislators have little to fear from bucking the governor's popular agenda.