You can’t help but be amused at the budget game governors and legislators play about this time every year. The script is pretty much the same. Each side criticizes the other throughout the process, but they come up with a balanced budget at the last minute.
This year’s contest got under way Friday when Gov. Bobby Jindal unveiled his proposed $24.9 billion budget for fiscal year 2011-12. Everyone involved was anxious to hear what the governor was proposing in his efforts to deal with an expected $1.6 billion shortfall.
The governor proposes to raise $410 million by reducing the budgets of state agencies, $225 million through more efficiency in agency operations, $200 million by freezing state employee pay raises, $110 million by continuing previous budget cuts and $96 million by cutting 4,000 full-time positions. Half of those are currently vacant.
All of that comes to over $1 billion. The remaining half-billion-dollar shortfall would be made up with increasing revenue and one-time money. Some of that one-time money would come from selling three state prisons.
Jindal’s plan, at least on the surface, appeared to handle the situation quite well. Yes, there are some risks involved and plans may have to be changed. But isn’t that always the case?
Paul Rainwater, an area man with an impressive background of public service and the governor’s commissioner of administration, fielded questions about the budget with ease.
Reaction is quick
However, as one business official said here Friday, “The devil is in the details.” And some members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that heard the presentation by Rainwater weren’t happy about some of those details.
News reporters seldom have to look far to find legislators willing to take on the governor. Some Democratic lawmakers, particularly, are always ready to pounce on a Republican chief executive. And vice-versa.
Democrats accused Jindal of balancing the state’s budget on the backs of college students, state workers and the poor. Even some Republicans got in their licks.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, can always be counted on for some heated rhetoric, and she said Jindal’s priorities are clear.
The Advocate of Baton Rouge said Peterson sarcastically said, “There’s a blanket statement that we won’t impose additional burdens on corporations or even individuals. But we’re going to go to those who are trying to achieve and attain an education in Louisiana, and we’re going to ask them to pay more.”
Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, said, “I’m trying to discern the real vs. imaginary dollars in the budget. Is there a list of that?”
Rainwater had a quick answer for that one.
“I wouldn’t call them imaginary. I’d call them real policy changes that will generate money,” he said.
Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, switched parties for convenience sake, but he still talks like a Democrat. He thinks it’s unfair for Jindal to ask state workers to pay a higher percentage of their pension costs after having their pay frozen.
State workers will end up with less take-home pay, but if the state’s pension debt problem isn’t solved they may not have a pension to fall back on when they retire.
Some of the funding in Jindal’s proposed budget is contingent on legislators and voters making some changes in existing law. That is risky, of course, but worth taking a chance on rather than proposing more serious budget cuts.
The TOPS scholarship program for high school graduates has become another of the state’s sacred cows, along with the homestead exemption. Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R- Algiers, and others don’t want to lose the money that funds that popular program.
Ray Stockstill, state budget director, said TOPS will be funded, no matter what.
Legislators have to realize they can’t always have their cake and eat it, too. Do you think they are going to give up their pet projects back home that consume millions of tax dollars every year? You bet they won’t. Millions and millions of dollars are already being requested for hundreds of local projects.
Rainwater made the point more than once that state government has to change. He said Jindal’s budget reduces the size of government and transforms it at the same time.
Even so, Rainwater said the state’s poor aren’t going to be denied their prescription drugs and health care.
Jindal fulfilled his responsibilities. He said the budget he submitted doesn’t raise taxes, protects higher education, K-12 and health care funding and reduces the use of onetime money.
Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch in some areas. However, there is little harm done, at least not at this stage of the budget game.
As we said at the beginning, the script hasn’t changed.
Complaints always surface because nobody wants his or her piece of the budget pie to be cut, but it’s early in the process.
All of the budget critics in the Legislature know fully well they will get the next crack at Jindal’s $24.9 billion spending plan. They will have more than 30 days to fashion the budget to their liking at this year’s regular session.
The undeniable fact is there is a $1.6 billion hole to fill in next year’s state operating budget. And before legislators complete their part of the process, they, too, will realize there are no easy answers or quick solutions.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].