Years ago in an earlier life, I was general manager of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce when oil and gas were totally the king and queen of the state’s economy. Needless to say, the Lafayette Chamber’s membership roster was replete with petroleum exploration, production and service companies, and the chamber did its best to serve that industry. Workforce shortage problems were as acute then as they are now–perhaps worse. In order to address some of those concerns, the chairman of the chamber’s oil and gas committee got a drilling company to donate a rig to the local technical school. Other companies promised to provide instructors for an industry-certified curriculum for training rig workers.
The donated rig was simply the structure itself; it did not include the ancillary machinery and equipment used to run it. It would take $750,000 worth of equipment to get the training going. My committee chairman asked if I thought we could get the state to put up the money for the additional equipment. I told him there was one way to find out. I called the Governor’s Mansion to find out if the two of us could come to Baton Rouge and make our request to Edwin Edwards. In 10 minutes, the meeting was set, and the following week we pulled up at the mansion.
The scene inside looked like a Saudi Arabian ritual. The ruling elites in the Saudi Kingdom occasionally go out to the desert and meet with the Bedouins who line up and ask the “powerful” for things to take care of their needs, everything from goats to dowries. My chairman and I took our places in line and waited for our turn with Louisiana’s Emir equivalent. Edwards, in his usual somewhat brusque fashion, asked us what we wanted. I relayed the request, and he asked my chairman a few questions about the project. Then he nodded, said he would do it, and called his aide and long-time ally Camille Gravel over to our huddle. He told Camille that he wanted our funding request acted on, and Gravel asked how Edwards wanted to pay for it. The governor replied: “Not with bonds because they need it soon. Do it with cash.” Then after a brief pause, he said, “No, do it with cash cash.”
To this day, I do not know what budget category “cash cash” was. All I know is that Gravel and Edwards knew, and the equipment was on the rig within six months. Louisiana was flush with money in those heady days of the oil and gas boom, and the Bayou State’s version of the Bedouins filled the parking lot of the Governor’s Mansion constantly to seek succor from the most powerful man in the state–the person who truly wrote the state budget and changed it upon a whim if he desired.
Much has changed since that meeting almost 40 years ago. Budget reforms have been enacted that, in theory, no longer allow governors to provide the estimate of revenues that his or her executive budget is based on. That duty is supposed to fall to the Revenue Estimating Conference. The Legislature adopted other rules to restrain the use of volatile revenues, like oil and gas severance taxes and one-time money from being the source of funding for recurring expenditures. But much is still the same today as it was during the Edwardian reign of the 70s. Revenue booms fuel spending sprees that can’t be sustained when volatile revenues plummet. One-time money is still a crutch that props up budgets with false promises of stability. And state officials have no concept of long-term fiscal planning; only fighting for every dime that can be spent today without any regard for the inevitable pain that occurs when future fiscal math is ignored.
We have once again met that pain — and there is no gift-ladened Saudi prince coming to meet us in our fiscal desert.