The leadership at odds, the budget divided between competing conceptions of what is in balance, the governor in splendid isolation upstairs.
No, that was last year.
This year? The Legislature ends one of its most contentious fiscal sessions in memory in an outburst of song: “Kumbaya.”
“The end result is a great budget for Louisiana,” gushed Gov. Bobby Jindal. The House sent it to the governor, as reworked in the state Senate, by a vote of 101-0, two days early. “There is no smoke and mirrors. It’s an honest-to-God balanced budget,” added the House’s Democratic leader, Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.
This, the outcome of what had been called the “cliff year,” when the state ran out of President Barack Obama’s stimulus funds and had to fill in a $1.6 billion budget shortfall. And this, after the House rejected — rightly, in our view — a couple of the Jindal administration’s riskier proposals, such as sale of state assets. And this, when for the first time in years there was a serious effort to override a gubernatorial veto.
Conservatives called it a tribute to the fact that the fatted calf of state government still had plenty of room to lose weight.
“No colleges will be consolidated or reduced from four-year institutions to two-year ones. No state-run hospitals will be closed. No dialysis machines will be turned off. The poor, the elderly and children will not go without necessary medications,” commented former House staffer C.B. Forgotston in his blog.
“The thousands of state employee layoffs that we were told would come from the massive revenue shortfall failed to occur,” Forgotston noted. “There are still thousands of vacant positions budgeted for the upcoming fiscal year.”
Forgotston’s point is that state government did not meet with the Apocalypse. Within limits, we agree with him: Once forced to dig under the seat cushions — in dedicated funds scattered around government — it’s amazing how much money the administration and lawmakers could come up with.
However, with the great amount of shifting and backfilling going on, it’s difficult to see the full dimensions of the budget. Certainly, advocates for the poor and disadvantaged complained repeatedly in the budget committees’ public hearings about services being reduced or curtailed.
That affects real people in real life. It’s not easily waved away in a budget deal.
How that works out in practice is going to take some time to sort out. “We have an instrument that meets our needs, does not meet our wants,” said Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
The concerns of the disabled or the elderly might seem only like wants to legislators, but seem more like needs to us.
Further, this budget does nothing to replace the hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to colleges that have been made in the past three years. Louisiana has thus regressed in four years; it hasn’t improved its competitive situation in higher education. Aid to local schools was frozen for another year.
The last-minute process that produced so much good feeling also raised some questions in the House. How did the Senate find about $200 million from various funds that the House was not clued in on, members asked — and there really wasn’t an answer provided to that question.
Louisiana’s future is not advanced by this budget. But in an election year for legislators and the governor, the budget appears enough to get through the political campaign season.
Maybe that’s why at the end of much internal backbiting and quarreling, politicians were willing to mingle around the campfire and break into comradely song.