Louisiana citizens learned this week that 30 Republican state legislators want to reform the way the state writes and approves its annual budgets. Most who heard the news were probably asking themselves pretty much the same question: Why should I care?
The answer is simple. The way Louisiana spends its $26 billion budget touches millions of lives in more ways than we can imagine. Ask education leaders, health care officials, social service organizations and the residents they serve who have been hit hard by mid-year budget cuts for the last five years. And the sad fact is none of it had to happen.
One budget reduction really hit home when it was announced the state was making deep cuts to hospice care that is so vital to those facing end-of-life issues. That decision was reversed when it became obvious the people of this state found the idea heartless and unacceptable.
Others weren’t so lucky. Funding was reduced for domestic violence shelters. A program was eliminated that provides contract services for the poor, mentally ill and drug-addicted. Colleges and universities that have experienced annual budget cuts faced additional money shortages.
The major reason for mid-year budget cuts is simple. The governor and the Legislature did what they do so often. They budgeted money on things expected to happen that didn’t materialize. They used onetime money that isn’t available year in and year out. And they put the budget together at the very last minute, which has become an annual tradition. Lawmakers who didn’t like it had no other choice because they knew the absence of a spending plan would be harmful to too many people.
Those are the issues the 30 Republicans want to address at the legislative session beginning April 8. State Rep. Brett Geymann of Moss Bluff is one of the leaders of the Budget Reform Coalition that released a legislative package Tuesday. They hope it will receive a warm reception from Gov. Bobby Jindal and other members of the Legislature.
“We believe these bills will change the ways we do things for the best,” Geymann said.
The coalition wants the budgetwriting process to be wrapped up a couple of weeks before the session concludes, end the use of one-time money and quit basing some spending on things that may not happen.
Perhaps the group’s most ambitious goal is to open up more areas of the budget to reductions so that health care and higher education, which aren’t protected, don’t have to bear an unfair burden. You get a sense of how bad things are when you consider the overall picture.
The $26 billion budget contains federal and state money and other funds. Only $8.2 billion of that is in the state general fund, and legislators can only make reductions to $2.4 billion of that money. The rest is dedicated by either state law or the constitution, and it can’t be touched. The budget coalition wants to fix that so that other agencies will share the load.
Families that try to live within budgets know you shouldn’t spend more money than you have coming in. And when times are tough, everyone has to make sacrifices. Why shouldn’t the state live by the same rules?
The budget changes sought by Geymann and his colleagues will have easy sailing if Jindal and members of the state Senate want them to succeed. However, that is where they may run into serious problems because that is where good intentions have been sabotaged in the past. Last year is a good example.
Conservatives in the House cut $267 million in one-time money from the budget, and sent it to the Senate. That money and additional dollars were restored in the Senate that has always gone along with Jindal’s wishes.
The governor said in a prepared statement his office has had good discussions with the Budget Reform Coalition, but that is a long way from a ringing endorsement. If past performance is a good indicator, the odds are Jindal and the Senate won’t go along with any drastic budget changes that might weaken their power.
It’s no secret that Louisiana governors wield tremendous influence over the state Legislature. Jindal has never hesitated to use that power to punish those who don’t play by his rules. Cross the governor and you lose your perks, your projects for the folks back home and your legislative effectiveness. Few legislators are willing to pay that price in order to be more independent. However, two of them did last June.
Geymann and Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, gave up committee assignments and perks like an apartment they shared at the Pentagon Barracks. They also realized they might have a difficult time securing projects for their home districts. Geymann explained why he did it.
“I need to separate myself from any perks just to be clear I’ve got one thing in my focus and that’s working on the budget,” Geymann said at the time.
Morris said, “I don’t want anything to be held over me that might affect a vote for my district.”
The Legislature will never be the independent branch of government it is supposed to be until a majority in both houses is willing to make the same sacrifices. The budget reformers are on the right track here, but political ambition being what it is, don’t expect any miracles.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].