What Have We Learned From Today’s State Budget Deal?

Today, the Louisiana House of Representatives voted unanimously to accept the Senate’s changes to the state’s $24.9 billion budget – with much less of the rancor seen last year when it required some strong-arming from Gov. Bobby Jindal to bridge the gap between the Republican House and Democrat Senate.

This year, the difference between the House and the Senate on the budget was just $200 million or so – and while the Senate managed to cover cuts the House had made to several key programs like health care and higher education by sweeping funds out of set-aside money and a federal hurricane-recovery stash to cover those priorities, in doing so they found a way to enact some of Jindal’s program. Specifically, the transition from a straight fee-for-services Medicaid plan to a program of placing Medicaid recipients in coordinated care networks.

Jindal was going to use proceeds from the sale of three state prisons to pay the transition costs of the Medicaid plan, but that idea isn’t going anywhere. He’s nevertheless getting a green light for a major reform.

Mostly, though, what we’re learning here is that covering a $1.6 billion budget hole isn’t all that hard to do. There are enough things which can be cut to cover that $1.6 billion that the Legislature managed to do it without killing old people or letting all the crooks out of jail or turning kids out into the streets without the ability to read and write.

All of the things we were told would kill this state if we lost them are still there. And all of the screaming about how stupid the conservatives were for getting rid of the Stelly taxes turned out to be so much BS.

In short, when it was necessary to cut waste, waste was cut. The real question is how much more is still in this budget?

Some 3,500 state jobs are being cut. But the majority of those jobs aren’t currently being filled anyway; they’re just budgeted positions which obviously didn’t need to be budgeted in the first place. We had too many state employees before this “budget cliff” forced the job cuts, and we’ll have too many next year.

State employee pay raises are frozen for the second year in a row. This is presented as a budget cut – the private sector workers among our readers will find that amusing, since a crappy economy more often than not means you’ll make less money, not the same amount or more, and you’ll be pretty happy not to be out of a job. Those state employees aren’t going on strike over not getting a pay raise, they’re not demonstrating at the Capitol and if they’re quitting their jobs en masse we haven’t heard about it (nor will we; outside of teachers and prison guards state employees usually quit their jobs when pigs take wing).

There are still private contracts being let for all kinds of stupid and unnecessary functions. What changed this year was that member amendments, the Louisiana version of earmarks, were largely curtailed. That prevented the Senate from larding up the budget with pork at the last minute like they did last year. Are we naive enough to think there’s no pork in this budget? Of course not. But there was a real bit of reform represented in the ban on member amendments and it saved real money.

You might hear next month or thereafter about all the crucial local programs no longer receiving state dollars because the earmarks are gone. Bear in mind that none of those programs – or at least very few – are of statewide necessity. They never should have received state dollars in the first place. The guess here is you probably won’t hear much of anything, because a staggering amount of that earmark money went into deadhead, paying-my-brother-in-law organizations and activities nobody but State Rep. So-And-So’s brother in law will miss.

No colleges are being shut down, and the budget cuts they’re dealing with aren’t so severe as to cripple them. They’re getting small tuition increases, though not enough.

Nobody’s taxes are going up, though it looks like that four-cent cigarette tax is getting renewed as part of a bill to dedicate TOPS money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement with Jindal’s acquiescence. Those who fought the renewal of that tax are correct that a temporary tax should be temporary and renewing it is tantamount to a new tax. That philosophical/semantic point aside, you’re going to pay the same amount in taxes you paid last year where the state is concerned. So the folks who said taxes would have to go up were wrong.

It all amounts to a lot of wailing and screaming over nothing. And while Jindal and the legislators should get credit, one guesses, for managing to cut the budget without killing the needy, at the end of the day this stuff wasn’t anywhere near as hard as it was made out to be.

That’s a lesson we should take to heart. If we can cut $1.6 billion without anyone being affected, maybe we can cut even more – and in so doing open up the ability to create a tax climate which would encourage economic growth and stop our population from stagnating.



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