At lunch today, the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge put on a program on budget reform including appearances from several members of the “fiscal hawk” coalition – specifically State Reps. Brett Geymann, Lance Harris, Cameron Henry, Paul Hollis and Valerie Hodges. The quintet offered a message of solidarity and organization in support of doing something about the mechanics of Louisiana’s budget, which anybody can see is a largely busted process.
In particular, the fiscal hawks decried the lack of transparency in how budgets are put together, the poor practice of getting floor votes on the budget at the last minute before legislative sessions end, which almost always leads to noxious line items passing because there is neither the time nor the information available to properly vet them and the fact that less than 10 percent of the total budget figure is actually available for examination during times like these when cuts have to be made.
This, of course, functionally leads to Gov. Bobby Jindal having basic total control of the state budget. Because what has happened for the last three years is that because of the flaws in the process noted above, Louisiana ends up passing a budget full of fictitious revenue and rosy projections, and rather than have the state legislature make responsible budget cuts and necessary restructuring of government in an orderly manner what we get is a budget which in short order becomes recognized as out of balance, leading to mid-year budget cuts the Jindal administration more or less dictates by fiat. Some of those cuts include things the House wanted done in the first place, but it rankles nonetheless that they weren’t fully debated in a legislative session.
That’s too much power for the governor to have, and even he has to know it. Which is why the fiscal hawks, in whose number can be found a majority of the Republicans in the House – they are, in fact, a majority of the majority – have been on a listening tour across the state and are now nearly ready to release a draft of a legislative package that would reform the budget process. Two major elements of that package will include some form of requirement that budgets be debated at the beginning, rather than the end, of a legislative session and the cracking open of statutorily dedicated funds which go into the state’s general fund, which would allow for some $3 billion per year to be moved around and perhaps could head off cuts to higher education and health care every time there is a shortfall.
I’m of the mindset that despite Jindal’s past clashes with the fiscal hawks there is likely a good deal of their legislative package that Jindal can find attractive enough to support – because if he does in fact want to burnish his national ambitions of some kind he’s going to need to show himself capable of working Louisiana out of its near-constant budget malaise. It’s in Jindal’s interest to smooth this over, because if he can’t get some sense of unity on the budget process it’s going to stand in the way of his getting tax reform passed, and if he’s not able to start producing stable, constitutionally-balanced budgets before the end of his term he’s going to disqualify himself as a guy who can produce solutions at the political next level (when stable, balanced budgets will likely be THE issue voters in GOP primaries will demand in 2016).
And in Michael Steele’s WBRZ piece on this issue, which aired on the 6:00 news tonight, I said so…