SADOW: How To Spend $38 Billion And Still Stiff The Public

What’s the point in delivering a line-item veto-proof $38 billion operating budget when you give the governor pretty much everything he wants?

Last week, the Louisiana Legislature signed off on the state’s fiscal year 2022 budget. Fueled by federal government largesse that would drive up the country’s relative debt to levels even higher than seen in World War II, the package crests over $38 billion, or an increase of nearly 50 percent since Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards took office.

Finishing well in advance of the Jun. 10 deadline, this means that if Edwards exercises his line-item veto power, the Legislature will have an opportunity to override any excisions he makes. Traditionally, the Legislature has passed the general appropriations bill so late in the session that a special, costly override session would have to take place to counter the governor, so governors use these vetoes as a threat to entice legislators to support their spending priorities and positions on other bills.

But there seems little point to the tactic if it means capitulate to the governor’s wishes, as largely happened this time. And Edwards consistently has desired budgets that grow the size of state government, under the false belief that government should redistribute as much wealth as possible due to an economic system allegedly rigged in the favor of certain interests, and without regard to efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Some areas of agreement emerged that will prove beneficial to the state. From a declared surplus, paying the first installment of a $1.1 billion tab for flood protection avoids hundreds of millions in interest payments.

However, this budget makes ongoing commitments that reward inefficiency and waste. Despite overseeing the worst educational system in the country, educators won an $800 annual pay raise. At the very least if doing this, lawmakers should have strengthened the nexus between performance and pay to create an incentive for better performance instead of reinforcing a system delivering poor outcomes.

Higher education employees also gained pay hikes in the two percent range, which only pours more money into an overbuilt system. Legislators needed to start paring institutions, especially at the senior level, and can use the savings from that to finance higher salaries.

Such generosity, and other new recurring expenditures in other areas of government plus the one-off line items worth $76 million that more properly should be borne by the local governments and nongovernmental organizations involved, courts disaster. It used to be an item of faith among the Capitol wags that one-time money, like that federal government bonus they’re working with this year, disappears, and even with projected revenue growth, a gap of $443 million remains going forward. Add to that the need of two more flood protection payments in FY 2023 and 2024 to avoid interest and refilling the unemployment trust fund, and this spendthrift budget just kicks the can down the road.

And the GOP leadership of the Legislature didn’t even get its tactics right. Removing line-item veto leverage also builds member support for bills which collected votes in one or both chambers on the two-thirds override borderline that Edwards says he will veto. But you have to expedite those bills, too, and at this point none of them look likely to force an Edwards decision by the end of the session.

So, in essence, Louisiana becomes saddled with a budget that spends too much, to Edwards’ liking, and guaranteed to include all legislators’ pet projects, but does nothing to stop him from vetoing matters supported by large legislative majorities (members consoled perhaps by their projects included and intact in the budget) as well by a popular majority. The strategy that led to this serves the desires of Edwards and many legislators, but shortchanges the best interests of the people.

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