If you see any bodies at the bottom of the cliff, let me know. I haven’t found any yet.
We heard a lot about the state falling off a cliff because of a $1.6 billion shortage in the new budget year that takes effect July 1, but a spending plan has been approved and casualties are hard to find.
The House got the budget first and cut $200 million more than Gov. Bobby Jindal wanted. The governor’s troops hit the ceiling over that one, but the Senate came to the rescue when it got the spending plan.
Unlike all the king’s men and horses for Humpty Dumpty, the Senate was able to put the budget back together again.
Oh, some are going to be hurt, no doubt about it. The $25 billion state budget approved here Tuesday, for example, does cut 3,450 jobs for a savings of $96 million. However, all but 1,600 of those are vacancies that haven’t been filled.
State agencies will have to make cuts of some $400 million, but that shouldn’t be hard to accomplish. All of us with a family budget have been absorbing higher costs of living for years.
Another big chunk of dough — $474 million — came from one-time funds that won’t be available the following year.
Merit pay gone
State employees didn’t get their merit raises, and agencies will have to absorb inflation costs. That is another $200 million saved.
We heard some talk about funding efficiencies that will save $225 million. No one has come up with exactly what that entails.
Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn’t like taxes, but he has no problem increasing college tuition. The Legislature helped higher education institutions come up with $258 million more in self-generated revenues.
Somehow the budget writers and legislators always manage to close those budget gaps year in and year out. And they wonder why John Q. Public is always skeptical when they hear forecasts of doom.
The governor did have to change some of his plans. The House refused agree to the sale of prisons to raise health care money. It didn’t like the idea of increased retirement costs for state workers in order to raise operating funds. And it removed all expenditures based on money that hasn’t been approved.
Even without those three, the necessary money was found by the Senate anyway. Some federal money was used and special funds were raided. Anything that wasn’t tied down tightly was grabbed in one big sweep.
Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, expressed surprise when the Senate came up with all of that extra money. A colleague asked Fannin why the House had to take all of the heat.
“I’m certainly disappointed that I did not know (the dollars) were there,” Fannin said.
The House did prevail in one instance. Senators didn’t touch $82 million the other chamber took from an industrial inducement fund. Jindal and the state Department of Economic Development complained that the loss of that money would be disastrous for attracting new industries and businesses to the state.
Senators didn’t bend, but the money will go back into the fund if voters this fall approve using tobacco settlement money to help fund the TOPS scholarship program. That would free up some $90 million in the first year needed to replenish the $82 million.
When all was said and done, almost everyone who played a key role in the budget deliberations had nothing but high praise for the final spending plan.
“I think that we have an instrument today that meets our needs of this state, does not meet our wants,” Fannin said.
Even Rep. John Bel Edwards, DAmite, a Democratic Party leader in the House, liked it.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors, that sort of stuff,” Edwards said. “It is an honest-to-God balanced budget as it stands today.”
Gov. Jindal offered his usual optimistic view of the world.
“We think it’s a very, very good budget for the people of Louisiana,” the governor said. “They’ve done a great job of protecting our key priorities, allowing us to move our state forward.”
Same old song
Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that got the budget bill from the House. He said rewriting it was tough.
“I can tell you, personally, over the last four years, that this has been the most challenging budget cycle that we have been through,” Michot said.
Legislators did spend a lot of time redoing the budget Jindal gave them in March. The House Appropriations Committee worked on it for months, and Senate Finance worked weekends to put it back together.
Yes they did, but this is a big part of what governors and legislators were elected to do. And they followed the same budget pattern that has been followed for a decade. The governor draws it up; the House takes it apart; and the Senate puts it back together again.
So spare us all of that talk for months on end about how bad it’s going to be. You found the money again, and there aren’t any bodies at the bottom of the cliff — or at least not yet.
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].