If Christmas seems to have come too early, it’s because it’s an election year.
While many seats in the Legislature have been filled, there remain a few key runoffs around the state, and there is the title bout, for governor of Louisiana. Everything is being promised to good boys and girls who vote, from more highways to better schools.
Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter have competed to be critical of the budget policies of outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal. Not so surprising, given the governor’s job performance ratings, down to 70 percent disapproval in a new University of New Orleans poll.
Both candidates for the top job rightly want to deal with the looming budget crisis, and there are differences in emphasis. As one observer noted, it’s difficult in Santa season for candidates to say specifically where they’ll raise the money — taxes — to pay for the promises.
“This is an election. They’re not going to commit to anything,” said Roy O. Martin III, a businessman who is chairman of the Board of Regents.
What is the go-to answer of the candidates? Loosen the locks on existing funds in the budget.
Both candidates are old hands at the legislative process, and they understand that it’s not that easy.
We agree with critics of today’s budget that there are too many dedicated funds, small to medium-size chunks of the general fund that are on budget autopilot, generating money year after year for specific purposes.
For those who’d like to see better priorities for state spending, as we do, we also have to recognize that just removing a dedication clause doesn’t mean that the money is free to be spent on highways or education or other purposes.
The rule of thumb is that about $2 billion in the state general fund is dedicated in the statutes. That’s not counting the higher level of dedications, those written into the Louisiana Constitution.
Lest voters blame politicians for this problem, remember than the voters as a whole approve constitutional dedications. Vitter said in a recent debate at the Press Club of Baton Rouge that constitutional dedications should also be discussed. That’s at best a medium-term answer because changing the constitution requires not only the Legislature, but a vote of the people at some future date.
In the short term, Vitter and Edwards rightly point to the tax credits and exemptions that have drained the general fund, and require close examination during a time of budget scarcity. And the same is true of the statutory dedications.
Edwards is right that “undedicating” is only the first step. “We can’t pretend that there is $2 billion in savings” to be found, he said.
That’s because legislators and governors have set up the dedications for specific purposes.
A homely parallel is cleaning out the garage. Unlocking the door is just one step and doesn’t take a thing out. Same with the political heavy lifting, going into the budget and actually telling constituents of institutions and programs, including businesses and many local governments, that their funding autopilot is now being kicked to the curb.