BEAM: A Lack Of Dialogue Is Doing Damage

The House of Representatives is as close this week as it has been in years to fixing the budget-writing process. However, it’s almost impossible to find reasonable public officials on all sides of the issue who are willing to engage in some give-and-take.

The legislative process is a threelegged stool. The governor submits a budget to the House, it often reworks the spending plan the way it likes and the Senate then gets its turn at bat. Gov. Bobby Jindal is the most hard-headed of the three groups it takes to forge a workable compromise. The governor has always prevailed because he has been able to count on the Senate to do things his way.

Some will ask, “What’s the problem?”

Jindal for the last five years has submitted budgets that count on revenues that aren’t always dependable. And when the money doesn’t show up, higher education and health care take the hits.

Neither of those areas is protected from budget reductions, so they pay a heavy price when money comes up short. They have faced mid-year budget reductions every year Jindal has been in office. There have even been some year-end cuts.

Take higher education, for example. The state spent $1.4 billion for colleges and universities in fiscal year 2007-08. The budget Jindal proposed for the fiscal year starting July 1 contains $284.5 million for higher education. That is an 80 percent reduction in state funding over those years.

The governor always justifies the cuts by saying colleges and universities have been able to raise tuition to make up the difference. However, that just isn’t the case. While I am writing this, there are higher education officials in the state Capitol who are speaking in favor of bills that would give them authority to seek even higher tuition.

This year, a group of House Republicans has forged a budget plan based on more dependable revenues. They are tired of seeing their colleges and universities struggling and citizens being denied health care they need and can’t afford. The Republicans have picked up support from their Democratic colleagues, whom they need to reach the magic two-thirds level (70 members of the House) to enact legislation dealing with tax issues.

Supporters of the plan told The Associated Press their compromise closes loopholes for special interest groups and protects higher education and health care services from deep budget cuts.

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, is one of the leaders of the Republicans in the House coalition.

“We’re trying to solve the problem,” Geymann told AP. “We will not have a hole to fill at the beginning of the next year that was caused by accounting gimmicks.”

The plan the GOP-Demo coalition is pushing replaces the $500 million in uncertain revenues proposed by Jindal with budget cuts, a 15 percent reduction in tax exemptions and credits and with other funds. The hardest pill for some to swallow is the $329 million that comes from those exemption changes because they fall heavily on business and industry.

Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, has been an effective spokesman for his industries, and many of them are located in Southwest Louisiana. This is a part of the coalition plan that needs a closer examination, but getting the parties to the same table has been impossible.

Instead of sitting down with and trying to work with the House coalition, Jindal has chosen to fight them with everything he can muster. For two days this week, he paraded two dozen people before TV cameras and news reporters to have some of those folks talk about the dire consequences of what the House is trying to do.

A number of those at the news conferences were lobbyists for special interests, some of the same people Jindal was criticizing when they fought his plan to eliminate income taxes. Others are actually engaged in the businesses and industries they represented.

The Louisiana Republican Party has only hampered the effort to fix the budget by accusing its House members of backing tax increases. Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, another coalition leader, downplayed the state party’s opposition, calling it a mouthpiece for the governor.

Geymann knows the governor always holds the upper hand, but he refuses to throw in the towel. He considers this a rare opportunity to change the way the state does its business.

“We have challenged those in opposition to come up with better solutions. I am still hopeful that we can come up with a solution that has strong support,” Geymann said Wednesday. “If you don’t like Plan A and B, then submit Plan C.”

No one knows how this opportunity to change things will turn out, but we could have the answer by week’s end. The rewritten budget is scheduled to be debated on the House floor Friday, and it could be the coalition’s last best opportunity to fashion a budget that better meets the needs of this state’s citizens.

None of this complex maneuvering would have been necessary if Jindal had been willing to sit down and work with the House and the Senate to bring more stability to the state budget. Unfortunately, he rarely compromises. It’s still his way or the highway.

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