BEAM: State Government Is Stuck In A Rut

“New Year, same political debate.”

“New cuts, but same old Jindal.”

“New year, same budget woes.”

Any Louisiana citizen looking for better news out of the state Capitol in 2013 is going to be sorely disappointed. Those headlines from various news sources don’t paint an encouraging picture. Gov. Bobby Jindal has been governor for five full years now, and the state has had five successive budgets cuts in the middle of the fiscal year. The Legislature meets again on April 8 for a fiscal session, and lawmakers will have to deal with a $1.2 billion budget shortfall. That, too, is nothing new.

You would think that would disturb the governor, but he is the eternal optimist. And he is about as inflexible as they come, insisting everything is right with the world.

“As always, our budget will be balanced, won’t raise taxes, will protect higher education and health care funding and help foster an environment where businesses want to invest and create jobs,” Jindal said.

The truth is higher education and health care haven’t been protected. Colleges and universities have lost $450 million in state funding since Jindal took office in 2008. The governor says those budget cuts have been made up with higher tuition, but that simply isn’t the case. Ask any higher education official who isn’t afraid to speak on the record, and he or she will tell you recent times have been awfully tough.

Health care is now down to the point of eliminating programs like hospice care for the dying and services to battered women and children. Charity hospitals are being phased out, and that is probably a good thing. However, there are still no guarantees in place that private hospitals are ready to take on those responsibilities in every community.

The way state government works is a big part of the problem. The governor proposes the budget, it gets debated and rewritten in the state House of Representatives and is put back in its original form in the state Senate.

The Advocate, which has never been a fan of the governor, explained the Jindal method of operation in a recent editorial.

“Year after year, in a truly Olympic display of dexterity, the administration has raided small funds throughout the budget, milked expedients such as sale of state property and shuffled money around so that large amounts of one-time money could be included in the operating budget…,” the newspaper said.

Jindal was opposed to the use of one-time money when he campaigned for governor, but it has become an annual crutch he uses to balance the budget. The situation has become so perplexing a group of “fiscal hawks” in the House has been organized to try and restore some sanity to budget writing. They predicted that using one-time money would lead to midyear budget cuts, and that is exactly what has happened.

Although their numbers are growing, the prospects of better budgeting aren’t good. Too many legislators aren’t ready to give up the committee assignments they get for playing ball with the governor. They also don’t want to face the potential loss of projects for the folks back home. Jindal has proved he will go to any lengths to punish those who don’t follow his game plan, and then insist it wasn’t his doing.

The governor not only fashions the budget. He has line-item veto power to remove projects inserted by legislators who don’t play by his rules.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, is his team leader in the upper chamber, and he reaps tremendous rewards for his loyalty. State Treasurer John Kennedy said back in November the state’s construction budget was crammed with projects for Alario’s legislative district. One official suggested it would take two computer discs to list them all.

Legislators continue to give the governor even more power. They approved a $325 million bond issue for rural road improvements at their last session and let Jindal pick the projects. Lawmakers who won’t follow the leader complained last month their areas haven’t received any of that money, but they should have known what was coming.

A study of more than 460 tax breaks and exemptions costing $6.8 billion annually has been going on during the interim. Some legislators had hopes they could eliminate those not paying dividends to free up needed funds. Jindal said it isn’t going to happen. He said he would veto any suggestions along those lines and exemptions will have to either be given to someone else or tax rates have to be lowered.

The state’s unemployment rate is low, new companies are coming into the state and existing businesses are expanding. However, the income and sales taxes aren’t growing, and maybe it’s because those tax breaks are too liberal. It is a subject someone in state government should pursue in order to get some answers.

For whatever reason, the headlines we mentioned at the start are right on target. The state might be able to get out of its financial rut if the Legislature assumed its constitutional role as an equal branch of government. The odds of that happening are slim, but we can always hope for a miracle.

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].

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