Some officials in the Gov. Bobby Jindal administration often remind us of children who are accused by their parents of wrongdoing. Youngsters usually say they didn’t do it or it’s somebody else’s fault.
The latest example in state government comes from Kristy Nichols, the governor’s commissioner of administration and budget spokesman. The state has had to deal with mid-year budget cuts during each of Jindal’s five years in office. Fiscal hawks and state Treasurer John Kennedy blame that on the governor’s use of onetime money that won’t be available in succeeding years or anticipated income in his proposed budgets that may not materialize.
Nichols was emphatic when she responded to that allegation during a question-and-answer session with James Varney of The Times-Picayune.
“One thing that needs to be clarified just factually. It’s extremely important,” Nichols said. “There has never been a deficit in this administration that was ever caused by anything other than changes to the revenue forecast. Kennedy’s comments talk about major budget cuts and about how using revenue that’s available in any given year has been the cause of major deficits.
“The reality is there has never been a major deficit in this administration that has been related to anything other than changes to the revenue forecast. That’s just factually incorrect. There’s never been a major budget cut because of one-time money. It’s all tied to revenue forecasting.”
In other words, it’s somebody else’s fault. In this case, Nichols said the cause of mid-year budget cuts is the forecasting system used by the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference. The REC uses fiscal experts to estimate how much revenue the state will receive over a given period. Members of the conference are also charged with designating which money in the estimate is annual revenue and which is nonrecurring or one-time money.
The comments by Nichols are surprising because she is a member of the REC as the governor’s designee. The conference doesn’t have a perfect record, but it has done a credible job over the years. The other three members are Sen. John Alario, the president of the senate, or his designee; Rep. Chuck Kleckley, the speaker of the House, or his designee; and LSU economist Jim Richardson, who has expertise in forecasting revenues.
Nichols also wants to know why using one-time money is wrong.
“I don’t know what they want us to use the money for,” she told Varney. “I don’t know if they want us to stockpile it and cut services, but I don’t think that’s what the taxpayers want in the state of Louisiana.”
What the taxpayers want is responsible budgeting, and that means using one-time money on one-time projects. Government agencies in Calcasieu Parish, for example, are using unpredictable revenues from casino gambling on capital construction projects. The latest example is their use of some of those funds to construct an improved traffic system in the Interstate 210-Nelson Road area to better serve motorists. It’s a onetime project.
The Jindal administration just has a hard time dealing with criticism. It has always been quick to reject opposing views and goes out of its way to defend its actions.
Political observers couldn’t help but be amused at how many times at last year’s legislative session that Jindal spokesmen insisted their education and retirement reform measures were constitutional despite arguments to the contrary. The administration even hired some highly paid experts to back up its arguments.
The Jindal team is now having to deal with court decisions declaring those reforms are either unconstitutional or weren’t properly enacted. A Baton Rouge judge said education reform packed too many parts into one bill. A voucher measure that provides state funds for students to use at private, charter or parochial schools was also rejected.
Jindal tried to reform the state’s retirement systems, but was only able to get legislators to agree to one change. It sets up a cash balance plan for future state employees that operates much like 401(k) investment plans. A Baton Rouge judge said it didn’t garner enough votes to be sent to the governor’s desk.
Administration spokesmen insist these decisions will be overturned in higher courts. However, if they lose they are convinced the Legislature will make the necessary changes at the upcoming session to save the education and retirement reform efforts. The odds are they will win out in the end in one place or the other, but none of this would have been necessary if administration officials hadn’t been so high-and-mighty and listened to some of their critics.
Effective government is a system of give-and-take and compromise. That is a political lesson that seems to have been lost on political leaders in Washington, D.C., and in Baton Rouge. However, there is one major difference in the two. The U.S. Congress aggressively defends its independence, while many members of the Louisiana Legislature seem content to keep playing second fiddle to the state’s governors.
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].