Tonight the Times-Picayune had an article on the growing controversy on the state budget. It’s an article the Jindal administration and its people heading up this fall’s re-election campaign can’t possibly have been happy with.
Specifically, when the Democrat running the House Appropriations Committee – and a Democrat who has so far resisted the temptation to switch parties – is to your right on fiscal conservatism, you have to take a pause and wonder where things went so wrong.
But that’s where we are right now after Jindal’s people moaned and screamed that a $139 million cut proposed by Rep. Jim Fannin (D-Jonesboro), the head of the House Appropriations Committee, will cause the state’s prisons to close and the state police would shed troopers like a dog does fleas
Although the cuts amount to less than 1.7 percent of the $8.2 billion state general fund, they are at the center of a squabble that has grown increasingly rancorous in recent days, with Jindal and his allies using a barrage of news releases and public events to accuse House budget writers of shirking their responsibilities when making changes to House Bill 1 last week.
“I don’t think it’s a responsible budget,” Jindal said. “I don’t think they took the time to hear testimony, to hear from agency heads and stakeholders and the general public about the consequences of these cuts, these devastating cuts to public safety, to health care, to education.”
Hours later, the heads of the State Police, the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness held a joint news conference to say that the House cuts would threaten public safety and force state troopers to be laid off for the first time in the 75-year history of the State Police.
But Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said his committee spent weeks reviewing the governor’s spending plan before making changes. He called it “absurd” for the head of the state prison system to say that prisons would have to close if he’s forced to cut 5 percent in a budget of about $390 million.
“If I’m a bank board and I tell my CEO that out of my branch banks out there I want you all to go cut 5 percent,” Fannin said. “And he tells me he can’t do it, you’re going to have to close it down. What am I going to do with that CEO? I’m going to find me a new one.”
It gets worse.
Fannin said no one from the administration has discussed the cuts with him, and that he would discuss each reduction in detail Wednesday, when the full House takes up the budget bill. In the meantime, he warned that more reductions are likely on the House floor to account for a $77 million drop in state revenues recognized last week by a forecasting panel.
Fannin did note that if any of Jindal’s ideas to free up money off one-time revenue sources, like the sale of three state prisons (unlikely) or the idea to move tobacco-settlement money into the TOPS program which would have the effect of freeing up money into the general fund (don’t ask us how), can pass the legislature that some of these cuts don’t have to happen. But at the end of the day, it’s still a lousy proposition.
A Republican governor with a national reputation and a good image on the tax/fiscal conservatism question shouldn’t be getting trumped by a Democrat legislator.
Whoever is running the budget issues for the governor – and particularly whoever is crafting the governor’s message on this stuff – is doing him a terrible disservice. Jindal is sounding like a RINO or worse, and if the word gets out about his hemming and hawing on the budget to the national public it will destroy his image as a conservative up in Washington. Bear in mind that while in 2008 Jindal was the Republican wunderkind out in flyover territory now there’s a Scott Walker, a John Kasich, a Rick Scott, a Bob McDonnell, a Chris Christie and a Nikki Haley to bring more budgetary gravitas to the public eye. He’s got lots of competition in a party full of young executive talent.
The Governor set himself up for disaster by presenting a budget which was dependent in large measure on one-time measures to balance it. Most of what Jindal put forth in that budget was actually good stuff. But the $400 million he attempted to cover based on selling prisons and other savings has put him and his staff in a horrendous position – and that’s what’s getting all the attention now.
This state’s budget is $25 billion. The people of Louisiana want a government a lot smaller than that. For Jindal to be on the wrong side of this issue is baffling. Dispiriting. Unconscionable.
It won’t cost him re-election, because there isn’t a credible candidate out there who can take advantage of Jindal’s weaknesses. But it does have the potential to make this governor a lame-duck even before he’s re-elected. His stroke with the legislature is already perplexingly minimal – and the legislature which will inaugurate next year will be even further to the right of his current positions.
Where is Jindal’s constituency for defending the status quo in the face of a $1.6 billion deficit? Do his political people think the Democrats incapable of running to his right? Fine; they’re probably correct. But so what? Jindal has a legislature – or at least a House of Representatives – willing to make structural changes in the size and scope of state government, and yet he’s squandering the opportunity.
If this is gamesmanship, if it’s a stall tactic based on a perception that if he can hold out until a legislature full of Republicans will be willing to make all the structural changes Jindal can draw up on a chalkboard, then maybe this isn’t a bad idea. The plan goes like this; he makes himself out as a budgetary centrist and stops any challengers from gaining traction this fall by doing so. Of course, the electorate isn’t centrist at present. In fact, it’s to Jindal’s right – when Fannin is to his right, as today’s events show, there’s a good indication the governor is missing a political opportunity to win down the ballot this fall.
At present, it’s hard to see how Jindal will have any coattails at all, which is pretty significant stuff given the devastated shape the Louisiana Democrat Party is in. What’s more likely is that the Tea Party movement and other state leaders, like Sen. David Vitter and his Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, will take advantage of the blown opportunity this budgetary mess offers and drive the state in a direction Jindal won’t necessarily like – and certainly one he won’t control.
Paul Rainwater, Jindal’s budget chief, is a good man. Everybody says that. Rainwater has made good steps to date toward gradually ratcheting down state government, and under different circumstances that would be a good call. But the fact is, the folks – and the leges as well – want major cuts in government, not gradual ratcheting. You’d expect the governor’s political people to have perceived this and communicate it to Rainwater, or Stephen Moret, Jindal’s Secretary of Economic Development who’s screaming about losing $82 million in cash to bribe businesses to locate in the state, or the governor’s people running LSU’s medical schools who are completely out of touch regarding the New Orleans Charity Hospital rebuild. Their agendas might not be wrong. An argument could be made for the Mega-Charity project, for example. But it’s not what the people want right now.
Nothing about this makes sense. If you’re a GOP governor and you want to look good nationally, the last thing you want is to be seen as being to the left of the electorate – particularly on fiscal issues in this day and age. And if you’re going to struggle to get things done in the legislature, for Pete’s sake you certainly don’t want to be the guy whose bills are getting crushed because the leges – the Democrat leges at that – consider you fiscally irresponsible.
This is all going on while Jindal is doing a terrific job handling the high waters in the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya and the resulting flooding. When it comes to executive responsibilities like disasters and other crises, he’s as good a governor as we’ve ever had. Put him in front of the legislature with a budget or an agenda he’s trying to get passed, and he’s Jordan Jefferson on 3rd and 10. It’s mind-boggling. And nobody knows how all this will turn out.
I’m not going to express any judgement on Jindal himself about this, because I don’t feel comfortable discussing the structure of his administration and how decisions are made based on the information I have available. This could be Jindal, it could be Timmy Teepell, his chief of staff, or it could be his legislative people. I have no idea.
What I do know is that in an election year, this governor so far seems to have no plan to achieve a budget that presents the public with a clear signal that he wants to take the state in a direction the voters clearly want to take it in. And for the life of me I can’t understand why.