Reflecting on the recent legislative session, Acadiana lawmakers Tuesday acknowledged that plugging a $1.6 billion hole in the 2015-16 state budget took stopgap measures that relied on accounting tricks in a fight that pitted business against higher education and health care.
The legislators who took part in a forum hosted by OneAcadiana, the business group, also agreed that Louisiana’s next governor most likely will call a special session in early 2016. They said the goal would be to come up with more reliable income streams that pay the state’s expenses during an entire fiscal year: a solid budget that does not present the mid-year cash crises that critics say have defined some of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s two terms in office.
“I do believe the structural, long-term fixes are yet to come,” said Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.
Barras and the other legislators at the forum, which was held at South Louisiana Community College in Lafayette, agreed that crafting a reliable budget will take more than one legislative special session. They said it would take at least two, maybe three, more special sessions in addition to the regular sessions.
Arriving at a balanced 2015-16 budget — even one with dubious assumptions — wasn’t easy. To plug the projected $1.6 billion budget hole, legislators cut $700 million in expenses and raised taxes by $900 million, said Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette.
There was much wrangling over how to increase revenue to match expenses without cutting higher education to the bone and inflicting pain on state health care services for the poor. The two sections of state government are its most expensive to operate, and both have been chopped in past sessions.
This year’s legislative environment was complicated by senators and representatives having to appease a governor who demanded a budget with no net gains in tax revenue. The answer was an accounting maneuver called the SAVE plan, which imposes a fee on college students they will not have to pay because of an offsetting tax credit.
As he did during the session, on Tuesday, state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, complained how SAVE “was really nothing but a fraud,” and that “the reality is we kicked the can down the road again.” The budget, LaFleur said, “is balanced on paper, but in reality it’s not.”
But some at the forum said that although it was clearly a gimmick, passing Jindal’s SAVE plan was necessary to keep Louisiana’s public universities afloat.
Sen. Bret Allain II, R-Franklin, said SAVE “was a means to an end. … I told myself that we were not going to gut higher education and health care.”
The session did result in some higher taxes for businesses, which organizations like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry fought hard during the session that ended June 11.
“We cut into what is the backbone of every community, and that’s businesses,” said Rep. Stuart Bishop, a Republican from Lafayette. Before the session, he said, “We had one of the most business-friendly states.”
The forum, moderated by University of Louisiana at Lafayette political scientist Pearson Cross, also featured SLCC Chancellor Natalie Harder and James Henderson, provost and vice president of academic affairs at UL-Lafayette. Harder and Henderson lamented the lack of success legislators had in granting tuition autonomy for Louisiana’s public universities.
Currently, the only way to raise tuition is with a two-thirds vote in the Legislature.
“It’s very hard for us to plan and determine our own financial autonomy” without having the authority to set tuition prices, Harder said.
She said legislators’ fears that college administrators would raise tuition too much are unfounded. “If we’re charging too much, we lose students,” she said.