In speaking to lawmakers over the last couple of years, I’ve heard a common refrain from both House and Senate members, Republicans and Democrats: Just wait until Gov. Bobby Jindal leaves office.
Then — finally, they say — they’ll be able to stop factoring Jindal’s national ambitions into Louisiana’s precarious budget equation. Then, and only then, will they be able to do what needs to be done to get state government onto more solid footing.
The candidates vying to replace Jindal less than a year from now are singing the same tune. All four major contenders — U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, state Rep. John Bel Edwards and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle — say they’re ready to call the Legislature into special session once they take office and to get right to work tackling the state’s financial woes. All signal that they’re ready to at least consider making some tough calls.
Much of that is understandable frustration talking. Despite an industrial boom in the state, the Legislature has been scrimping and slashing for years now, and the recent sharp drop in oil and gas severance taxes has made the picture even more grim. Throughout, Jindal’s personal, politically driven rigidity, including his refusal to accept federal money for Medicaid expansion or consider any adjustment that could fit an unreasonably broad definition of a tax increase, has restricted its options.
It’s also, frankly, an excuse, a way to deflect blame for the mess. Some lawmakers want to expand services. Some want to cut out-of-control, industry-specific and arguably nonsensical loopholes. Some want to curtail the administration’s habit of paying recurring expenses with one-time windfalls or borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. But doing any of those things means taking tough votes and creating enemies who could seek revenge come campaign time, which just happens to be this fall for them as well as the gubernatorial hopefuls.
Now, though, all that may be changing simply because the state can’t wait until 2016.
The numbers that emerged this week from the Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines how much the state has to spend, were that bad. The new figure for this year is some $300 million below initial projections, and about $100 million less than the previous, downwardly revised total. For 2016, a projected $1.4 million shortfall grew to $1.6 billion.
Even the WISE Fund aimed at providing $40 million to train workers for jobs in Louisiana’s growing industries — one of the governor’s signature initiatives from the past few years and a rare policy geared more toward local residents than national primary voters — is endangered.
Preparing next year’s proposed budget, Jindal now says he will offer the Legislature “suggested solutions” that could mitigate huge expected reductions to higher education and health care, the two areas that always absorb the brunt of budget cuts.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jindal was coy about the ideas he’s discussing with legislators, although he did double down on his hard line against reducing tax breaks, even those that don’t provide clear economic benefit, without any offsetting cutting of taxes elsewhere. So the hunt is apparently on for loopholes to cut that Jindal can cast as revenue neutral, no matter that the ultimate aim is to find new money. And if that sounds like a game of semantics, well, it’s about the best we’re going to get out of this administration.
Still, that Jindal’s at the table at all, even if he was forced there by ominous circumstances, is a significant development.
It means that, come this spring’s session, legislators may get a chance to act on all that pent-up frustration, to stop wringing their hands and actually tackle some of the structural problems that perennially plague Louisiana’s budget.
The big question is, will they?