The legislative session this year centers almost entirely upon the state’s fiscal problems. After record state spending in 2007 and 2008, the financial market meltdown in the fall of 2008 brought fiscal reality back into focus among voters in Louisiana. It remains to be seen if that focus will carry over to our state elected officials as well.
A recent public opinion survey conducted by Southern Media Opinion and Research (SMOR) shows that a strong majority of the voters has a clear opinion of what our state officials should do in response to the fiscal crisis. Simply put, they believe that state spending should be brought back to levels where it existed prior to the explosive growth of the state budget a few years back. Furthermore, they don’t think that budget gimmicks (such as the use of one-time revenues to fund recurring expenses) should be utilized to fix the problem.
When asked if state dollars are being spent wisely, by a two-to-one margin the voters said, “no.” When queried as to whether the state’s fiscal problems were a result of too much spending or not enough revenues, 56 percent of the respondents said excessive spending was the problem and only 31 percent said it was a lack of revenue. Majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all thought that the cause of the problem was excessive spending.
One of the “solutions” being proposed to the state’s fiscal crisis is to enact changes to our state constitution that would allow constitutionally dedicated trust fund money to be used (in lieu of budget cuts) to “balance” the budget. The voters seem to be much more fiscally responsible than some in state government on the issue of using even more non-recurring revenue to address problems with recurring expenditures. In the poll, 74 percent of the voters opposed raiding the trust funds, while only 20 percent supported the legislation. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all strongly opposed this approach.
The ball is now in the Legislature’s court. Last year, the governor and the Legislature stuffed $1.5 billion of temporary federal stimulus dollars into the state budget to balance it. They are planning to do the same for next year’s budget that is now being fashioned. Little is being done thus far to bring high levels of recurring expenditures in line with the amount of state-generated revenues available to fund services. The legislation that would allow the raiding of the trust funds is an attempt to avoid making tough fiscal decisions by coming up with even more temporary revenue for the Fiscal Year 2011-2012 budget that the governor and the Legislature will fashion next year—just before elections.
If legislators are tempted to follow the temporary revenue path, they should keep in mind another bit of information from the SMOR poll: 80 percent of the voters said they are likely to vote against any legislators who voted to increase their pay. Most did. If they slap 74 percent of the voters in the face again by raiding the trust funds to artificially balance the budget, Election Day 2011 is not going to result in favorable memories.
The SMOR poll confirms that the national mood of anger and distrust toward government, and concerns over spending, debt, and taxes is alive and well in Louisiana. Governments continue to spend beyond the ability of taxpayers to finance them, and the taxpayers have had enough.
The governor and the 144 members of the Legislature should spend a lot of time reviewing the message that the voters sent them in the recent SMOR poll.
Dan Juneau is the President of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry (LABI)