Ask Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain what government services were cut as a result of the six-month effort to fill the state’s massive budget deficit, and he answers, “Whole Foods.”
A couple of weeks ago, when New York sanctioned the upscale Whole Foods Markets in that state for widespread overcharging of consumers by misstating the weights of prepackaged products, Strain said he got a flood of calls.
Whole Foods has stores in the Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans areas. Only one had been checked — the store in Metairie on Nov. 24 — as part of the Agriculture Department’s systematic inspections of the 150,000 weights and standards devices in the state’s grocery stores.
The others were on the list to be checked. But Strain doesn’t have the money to fill all the inspector positions, so those inspections aren’t as frequent as in the past.
“But if we hear a complaint, we go and check them out,” Strain said. He scrambled the inspectors, threw their schedules out the window and sent them to Whole Foods. The Louisiana stores checked out OK.
“Some things go unanswered,” Strain said last week, financial documents spread across a conference room table. “You do the best you can and prioritize the work, but at the end of the day you’re not at the level of oversight where you should be.”
Needing to find $1.6 billion to balance this year’s budget, state officials began in January with dire warnings about the kinds of services likely to be cut. The spending plan for the next 12 months was put in place on July 1, but with fewer reductions than originally forecasted. Still, the budget shrank, leaving Strain and other agency heads to determine which services taxpayers will actually have to do without.
Make no mistake, funds are being juggled and services are being ratcheted back, but the impact is nowhere near as catastrophic as predicted in January, February, March and April.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s communications staff had trouble last week coming up with a single example of a government service curtailed because of the roughly $450 million cut from the state’s spending plan for Fiscal Year 2016.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, whose name is on the bill that became the state’s operating budget, said the pain was spread throughout state government. It was a bunch of stuff and not any one thing, he said.
The promiscuous use in recent years of “one-time money” — that is, paying expenses that recur year in and year out with dollars that won’t be available next year — coupled with a drop in the price of oil, which is tied to severance taxes, royalties and other mineral revenues, left lawmakers about $1.6 billion short when they initially gathered. That’s out of an approximately $8.8 billion general fund, which is the money Louisiana contributes to its own budget. (Much of the rest of the $25 billion budget comes from the federal government.)
Fannin said that after seven years whacking away at spending for higher education, health care and the operations of state government, legislators had little appetite for further cuts there. Instead, they chose to rely more on boosting revenue by increasing cigarette taxes, raising fees and reducing tax breaks.
That mitigated the need for cuts to the budgets of the agencies that provide services to residents, Fannin said.
Spending cuts were still made, he said, “but you can’t see every one of them.”
State agencies will have to absorb about $160 million of inflationary costs. Another $290 million of reductions were spread around the agencies, according to budget documents.
The Governor’s Office, for instance, reduced its travel budget and saved $36,600, and it saved another $53,387 by postponing promotions of staff attorneys. Homeland Security & Emergency Preparation reduced this year’s funding for buying meals-ready-to eat to hold in storage in case of a hurricane. The Crime Victims Reparations Fund lost $671,060, and the state prisons kicked in $300,000 by increasing the ratio of supervisors to staff from one supervisor for every 3.7 employees to one for every 4.5 workers.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who runs tourism programs, said that for the first time in years, he’s not looking at reducing hours for state parks and historical sites and postponing maintenance.
On the other hand, he had to tap the monies used to buy advertising to try to persuade people from other states to vacation in Louisiana. He redirected about $1.5 million from that tourism advertising fund into a decentralized arts fund that allows local groups to decide how to support the arts in their communities.
Over the years the Jindal administration had defunded the arts programs, despite Dardenne’s arguments that a flourishing cultural scene is part of what attracts tourists to Louisiana.
“I don’t want to collapse the arts programs in Louisiana. It’s too much a part of our messaging. So my only source of revenues for that is to take it from the tourism fund,” Dardenne said.
All state agencies’ budgets have been cut, almost in half, over the past seven years, leaving very few places to trim spending, he said.
The state Department of Agriculture & Forestry had 1,006 employees in 2008. On Tuesday, it had 522 workers, and authority to fill another 31 vacancies.
But many of those jobs will stay empty as Dane Morgan, the department’s assistant commissioner for management and finance, directs those funds to other needs within the agency.
For instance, fighting fires in Louisiana’s 18.9 million acres of forestland is a core constitutional duty for the department. But that budget came in $845,000 short, so he’s juggling money to ensure that the number of firefighters — 146 in 2010, 103 today — doesn’t drop any further.
In an average year, about 1,500 fires break out — sometimes a dozen a day — burning an average of 12.5 acres before being snuffed out.
A small fire, according to federal authorities, broke out Saturday morning near Sugartown in southwest Louisiana’s Beauregard Parish and burned about five acres before being discovered.
Legal restrictions, contracts and “matching monies” — dollars sent by the federal government to match state contributions — are all part of the puzzle Morgan needs to figure out when divvying up his resources. He’s not allowed to shut down one program and move those dollars to another.
And there is no more money for travel or supplies that can be tapped, Morgan said.
So, he’s taking money from funded vacancies and put it into the fund set aside to buy fuel for the firefighting equipment.
“We do not have enough funds if we have an intense fire season,” Strain said, adding that the plan is to seek emergency funds to buy more fuel if fires start getting out of control.
“We’re going to have a wet season. We’re going to be OK,” Strain said optimistically.
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