Gov. Bobby Jindal’s addiction to using one-time money to balance the state’s budget has come home to roost again. You would think the governor would have learned by now that surplus money that is here today will be gone tomorrow if he spends it.
Jindal has earned the rare distinction of having had mid-year budget shortfalls in each of the five years he has held office. The shortages have ranged from $107 million to $341 million.
Budget reductions that are required in the middle of a fiscal year are especially crippling to health care and higher education. Neither of those budget areas is protected from cuts, and they have been hit hard since Jindal took office.
Health care received some serious reductions in the latest round of budget cuts announced Friday. The changes will affect care for the poor, the mentally ill and drug-addicted, pregnant women, those in hospice care and medical professionals who provide care for those groups.
Meanwhile, higher education lost only $22 million in the latest round of budget reductions, and that brought some sense of relief. However, it doesn’t make up for the financial losses suffered over the last four years.
Former Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco brought higher education funding to a level it hadn’t enjoyed in many years. However, a drop in funding since Jindal took office in 2008 has erased a chunk of the gains. The Legislature has been a willing partner as higher education has seen its funding reduced by more than $425 million over that period of time.
Leaders in higher education are leaving the state for better and more secure jobs elsewhere, but that isn’t the only problem. The Advocate reported earlier this month that department heads, deans and faculty are beginning to look at states with better budget management. The newspaper added that colleges across the country are beginning to steal some of Louisiana’s top talent in higher education.
Jindal is adamant about not increasing taxes, but he has no problem with higher tuition. In fact, his administration said Friday the latest higher education cuts shouldn’t be a problem because the schools brought in more tuition than expected and saved millions with a hiring freeze.
Tuition at the nine universities in the University of Louisiana System has risen from $3,800 to $5,500 a year for the more than 93,000 students in the system. McNeese State is one of those universities.
“For Louisiana’s largest college system, the years of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administrations have been a disaster,” The Advocate said in a September editorial.
It added that continuous budget cuts make it tough for a smaller university like McNeese, which “has to keep a range of courses available to maintain its status as a university.”
That tells only part of the story. The prospect of reduced funding comes at a time when McNeese and Sowela Technical and Community College are facing a monumental challenge. They are being asked to get ready to train professionals and technicians for a Sasol expansion called the largest economic development project in the state’s history.
Jindal called Sasol’s decision to spend up to $21 billion to expand its Westlake facilities a “game changer” for the state’s future.
“… Once this project is fully up and running, Sasol will become the largest economic driver company in all of Southwest Louisiana, as well as one of the top 10 economic driver companies in our entire state. It may be one of the largest foreign direct investment manufacturing projects in the history of the country.”
The governor has pledged state assistance to set up training for Sasol workers, but it may be coming too late to fully shore up the higher education losses over the last five years. And what about the possibility of future budget cuts? The budget deficit projected for the fiscal year beginning next July 1 has already climbed to $1.2 billion. That can’t be good news for health care and higher education.
Lower sales and individual income tax revenues are blamed for the recent budget deficits and others to come. And that’s hard to understand since state unemployment is low and Jindal has had good success in bringing new industries to the state.
State Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, offered this explanation:
“If we are creating a lot of jobs, the only thing I can conclude is that those jobs aren’t paying what the previous jobs were paying,” Fannin said.
That is one possibility, but the answer is obviously more complex than that. And it’s time to find out why taxes are down when economic development has been so successful. A good place to start fixing the problem would be to end the use of one-time money to balance the state budget.
The Fiscal Hawks in the Legislature have been sounding the alarm every year about the use of one-time money, but their pleas has fallen on deaf ears. They have consistently said more conservative budget planning would help avoid damaging mid-year reductions that come with only half a fiscal year remaining.
Unfortunately, their colleagues and the governor’s office have turned a deaf ear to their pleas. Nevertheless, the Hawks promise to keep up the fight.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].