An LSU poll released last week confirmed for Louisiana legislators what they knew all along: They’re going to lose no matter what happens with the state budget.
A majority of Louisiana adult residents think the state’s $1.6 billion deficit could be fixed if only state government would give up its profligate ways, according to the 2015 Louisiana Survey.
“I hear this all the time,” House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin said, looking off into the distance and exhaling audibly, weary at trying to recall the last meal he had that wasn’t interrupted with a “Let me tell you what you should do.”
“They’re not taking the whole thing into context,” said the Jonesboro Republican, whose name is on House Bill 1, the legislation that, when passed and signed, will become the law authorizing state government to spend public money for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The bulk of those interviewed by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab said the state needs to cut more spending — except for higher education, health care and highways, which should receive more funding.
According to the survey, respondents believe that 44 cents of every state dollar is wasted and that government spending keeps going up. Similarly, a majority is pretty sure taxes have risen over the past seven years — one in five thinks those taxes have “gone up a lot.”
This is not one of those robo-call polls that phone a specific type of person with questions worded to elicit responses that prove “fill-in-the-blank” candidate would lose a head-to-head runoff with Pol Pot.
Sponsored by the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs in Louisiana and the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, the 2015 Louisiana Survey is based on interviews, conducted on both landlines and cellphones, with a variety of people in different regions of the state.
Fannin can’t recall a single tax increase during the decade or so since the then-Jackson Parish police juror was elected to the House of Representatives. But, for sure, he says, no taxes have been imposed since 2008 and, in fact, so many taxes have been rolled back that revenues have declined by nearly $3 billion. State government spending is nearly $2 billion less than the level in 2008.
During the few times Jindal has discussed the issue with Louisiana reporters — usually fielding a couple questions at some ribbon-cutting — he insists that $1.6 billion is a bogus number when talking about the shortage of revenues.
The number refers to the money needed, but unavailable, to pay next year for the same level of this year’s services.
“It’s a mistake to look at the continuation budget and say, ‘Well, that is a deficit,’ ” Jindal said a few weeks ago, adding that it is wrong to assume government services have to be funded at the same level every year.
About $1 billion, maybe a little more, that lawmakers used to balance this year’s budget came from sources that simply didn’t produce dollars again. They knew it wouldn’t at the time and were betting on the economy to expand enough to generate more money. But all this predicted growth, which was supposed to come from starving the government beast, that would fill the state’s cup to overflowing hasn’t really happened yet. What happened was the price of oil fell, creating an even deeper hole after years of cuts.
Added to that is a structure that gives budget architects little flexibility, said Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, the Mandeville Republican whose committee will have to bless the budget after the House approves it.
Much of the state’s $25 billion annual budget comes from the federal government, leaving about $8.5 billion in state general fund dollars, Donahue explained at a recent public forum. About $6 billion of that money pays for public schools and other expenses and, therefore, is unavailable for any other use. (Voters over the years locked away a lot of money because they did not trust elected officials to use the tax or fee for the agreed-upon purpose.)
“We can see it. But we can’t touch it,” Donahue said.
That leaves about $2.5 billion from which lawmakers have to carve out $1.6 billion. And the only places budget writers are legally allowed to cut are higher education, health care and state offices, like the one overseeing roads.
Donahue says he, like Fannin, is besieged by people recommending more and deeper cuts, except for higher education, health care and highways.
“When someone comes up to me and says that,” Donahue said, “I ask them, ‘Where would you cut?’ ”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.