So what is the best thing that can be said about the 2011 regular legislative session?
Legislators agreed on a $25 billion operating budget, which is one of the few things they have to do.
All that talk about this being the “cliff” year — massive problems for state services because of too little money — turned out to be just another round of inside-the-beltway-type chatter.
State aid for public schools was frozen for the third straight year.
Colleges and universities, with the aid of tuition hikes, can mostly maintain the status quo.
Health-care advocates, while clearly wishing for more, avoided the sort of predicted financial meltdown. The warnings started making the rounds after last year’s session.
Lawmakers rejected some of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s high-profile proposals.
That list includes the merger of Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans, the sale of some state prisons to patch budget holes and the establishment of a “superboard” to oversee colleges and universities.
They also tweaked Jindal’s $25 billion spending plan, in part by the Senate “finding” $200 million in the waning days of the session.
That is just the sort of “discovery” that breeds cynicism among taxpayers on just how real the budget crisis is.
Yet it shows just how low the bar is set when, by defeating some key Jindal priorities and modestly changing the budget, some view 2011 as sort of a breakthrough for the legislative branch.
As usual, there was no high-profile legislative leadership agenda on key issues.
Any ideas on how to tackle Louisiana’s $12.5 billion road and bridge backlog, improving public schools and other major issues will apparently come from the governor, or not at all. One clear legislative initiative — phasing out the personal income tax at a cost of $5.4 billion — died amid questions on how to make up for the lost revenue.
Wiping out the tax, especially in an election year, had an obvious appeal.
Yet how to pay for it was punted, left for future legislators. After all, talk of massive property or sales tax hikes to offset the $5.4 billion carried little appeal.
And neither did the sort of slash-and-burn spending cuts that would be required if lawmakers simply got rid of the personal income tax, without steps to offset the loss of revenue.
Since Jindal took office, the Legislature can still claim two clear cases of initiating major plans. In 2008, lawmakers tried to boost their own pay — for a part-time job — to $60,000 per year. Jindal vetoed it, after initially saying he would not. In the same year, lawmakers, not Jindal, led the drive for a $359 million state income tax cut.
The governor got on board late, and the positives that Jindal and lawmakers claimed at the time have gotten buried under Louisiana’s worst budget problems in decades.
The 2011 legislative session was also notable for its lack of what critics dub “slush fund” projects that lawmakers love to take home.
The money funds museums, high school alumni groups and local nonprofits.
Old-line legislators insist the spending is justified, even when public schools and other services go without. Opponents call the money a symbol of legislative excess.
Last year, lawmakers approved about $30 million in pet projects amid state money problems. This year a $1.6 billion shortfall was too much to overcome.
Will Sentell covers state government for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate. com.