When you’re neck-deep in muck and mire, it’s easy to forget that your original goal was to drain the swamp. Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards should ponder that old saying as he contemplates looming state budget battles.
No matter who had been elected governor last month, the next four years should be about building the state’s future with a lean, well-run government, a strongly competitive business climate and a growing economy. All of that starts with sound fiscal management and sensible tax policies.
To achieve these goals, messy budget fights are required. But make no mistake, the budget process is a dangerous swamp that sucks up time, attention and political capital into the murky wilderness of self-dealing. If fundamental decisions aren’t made in the new administration’s first year, and if budget wrangling is allowed to drag on, and recur year after year, it will consume the state’s ability to solve other critical problems.
History tells us that when there are funding shortfalls, the long knives come out and good things often get cut along with the bad. That makes a lot of people mad. When there are surpluses, the long knives still come out as everybody in the State Capitol, from lobbyists to department heads, frantically competes for the extra cash. While budget wars rage on, state departments are hamstrung by uncertainty and the people running the agencies slide into a debilitating funk. The unpleasant sausage-making aspect of legislative bargaining will, as it always does, disgust the voters.
Edwards’ success as governor depends upon his ability to do something that will be very difficult: get the state on a solid fiscal footing. But when he jumps into those roiling waters to make it happen, he needs to remember one critical lesson: Get out as quickly as possible. The budget swamp is no place for a new governor to linger.
Edwards faces tricky challenges. He’s raised expectations that he will push new spending initiatives and restore funding for big-budget items slashed by outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal, such as higher education. But at the same time, he has to pay off a $117 million deficit from last year –– in effect, a stack of unpaid bills left under the mattress –– and a $22 million shortfall in the TOPS scholarship program. He also has to deal with $500 million of red ink engulfing Medicaid.
To make matters worse, oil and gas revenue, as well as sales and corporate taxes, are weaker than originally predicted. The Revenue Estimating Conference last month reduced expected state revenue forecasts by $370 million for this fiscal year and $322 million for the next one.
If Louisiana is going to confront serious issues — education, economic development, infrastructure, coastal restoration, public safety — and do it seriously, it won’t happen if state leaders endlessly lurch from one budget crisis to another, fixated on small-bore trade-offs and partisan squabbling.
These are unusual times. Public officials can either play politics –– which is typical –– or they can lead –– which is demanding. They can recite talking points –– which is easy –– or they can take charge –– which is hard. Louisiana needs leadership that will eschew the former and embrace the latter.
Earl Long once said that his first primary supporters would get jobs and his runoff supporters would get good government. But in today’s environment, where responsible governing is sorely needed, good government can be smart politics for everybody.
We will soon find out if John Bel Edwards, the man who was elected governor on the basis of his opponent’s shortcomings rather than his own plans, will be able to handle the task in a timely manner.
An author and political analyst, Ron Faucheux is a former Louisiana legislator from New Orleans. He currently runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm that has conducted polling for The Advocate and WWL-TV.