State legislators are weeks away from settling on a solution to Louisiana’s huge budget deficit, but on Tuesday, they said one thing is clear: They don’t expect much help from Gov. Bobby Jindal in solving the problem.
Lawmaker after lawmaker — Democrats and Republicans alike — expressed disappointment that Jindal in his 21-minute address kicking off the 2015 legislative session on Monday didn’t offer more substantive ideas to help close a $1.6 billion deficit projected for the upcoming year.
Several of them noted that Jindal ended his speech by wishing them good luck, as if, said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, “the problem is in our laps, and we need to solve it.”
To be sure, legislators have the constitutional role of approving the state budget.
But many had hoped for clearer guidelines of what Jindal will approve or not approve in terms of raising more money since the governor can veto any budget they approve. Everyone — including Jindal — agrees that spending cuts alone won’t solve the budget problem because that would mean the likely closure of college campuses and public hospitals.
Jindal spent several minutes in his speech saying he opposed higher taxes but wanted the Legislature to end tax rebates given to companies. “Corporate welfare,” Jindal called the rebates, which are awarded for 12 different taxes, including the business inventory tax.
Ending those tax rebates would raise $526 million, and Jindal is proposing to use that money to reduce — but not eliminate — cuts to the state’s health care system and colleges and universities.
“If companies are getting checks from the taxpayer as opposed to paying taxes, then that is government spending that needs to be examined and reduced,” he said.
“It would be wrong for us to impose cuts to higher education, in order to protect this corporate welfare.”
Hanging over the Legislature is Jindal’s adherence to the pledge he signed with Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, D.C., anti-tax lobby headed by Grover Norquist. In the eyes of Norquist’s group, ending the tax rebates does not qualify as a tax increase.
But would ending government tax subsidies for solar companies qualify as corporate welfare? Or the tax subsidies for the film industry? Or the tax subsidies to oil companies to drill for new wells? Jindal didn’t say.
“Here’s the part that is frustrating to members,” said state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. “We have to narrow our options down to what the governor perceives to be corporate welfare. But we’re not sure how he defines corporate welfare.”
“The administration is not giving us the details and support we need,” said state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said it will be more difficult to balance the budget this year than when he was House speaker during the mid-1980s Oil Bust and the state ran so short of money that officials feared they couldn’t pay employees.
“The governor has strong feelings about raising taxes without [spending] offsets,” said Alario. “That makes the parameters tougher and the magnitude larger.”
Alario has already told legislative leaders privately that he will not support an effort to challenge Jindal’s view on taxes.
For now, legislators are in a bit of a waiting game, but the first action should take place in the House, where, under the state Constitution, measures to raise taxes and fees must originate.
Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said the House will move at its normal pace because of the need to know how much each of the tax measures would raise. That information will come from the Legislative Fiscal Office, which is still tabulating the so-called “fiscal notes” for the hundreds of tax bills before the Legislature.
Rep. Bryan Adams, R-Terrytown, who is sponsoring Jindal’s measure to end the tax rebates, House Bill 366, said he doesn’t know when the Ways and Means Committee, which has first jurisdiction over the tax bills, will hear it. The committee is chaired by state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, who has been unavailable. Robideaux, a CPA, is presumably busy with the end of tax season.
State Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said his panel can’t begin to approve its version of the state budget until it knows how much new revenue the Ways and Means Committee will approve.
State Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, said no solution is clear yet, “but I don’t see how we get through this problem without everybody giving a little.”
State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, scrawled figures on the back of a piece of paper during a three-hour Senate Finance Committee hearing on the budget Tuesday before concluding afterward, “I’m convinced that something good will come out of this ultimately.”
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.