Look as we might, we can’t identify the person in the State Capitol who first used a particular phrase to describe Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budgets. But we can only point to the current budget mess as justification for the apt description, “imaginary numbers.”
Why? Because so much of this year’s budget is padded out with one-time money from a dizzying array of sources, not the ordinary tax revenues that are more stable and reliable year to year. It’s the opposite of a conservative budget.
We’re now in the budget for fiscal year 2015, which runs to June 30 of next year. The Legislature will meet in the spring on the fiscal 2016 budget.
Before then, the budget will be propped up with funds relying on the sale of property, targeting tax scofflaws and leaning on the repayment of Hurricane Katrina loans. Various leftover funds are funneled into the operating budget; some of those come from reliable recurring revenues and some not.
All in all, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office concluded that this year’s state operations rely on nearly a billion dollars that won’t be available next year.
That news is bad, but it was received with striking equanimity by members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. The members of the House and Senate heard a grim prediction of a $1.2 billion shortfall in fiscal 2016.
And then they moved on in the meeting. It was almost as if their familiarity with imaginary numbers has made members blasé about the prospects.
“We have already started to work on solutions,” Barry Dussé, director of the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, told the committee. “We’re well on our way in solving this shortfall.”
If that sunny optimism did not persuade the committee — Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, was openly skeptical — it does raise the question of imaginary numbers: Is the $1.2 billion shortfall a real potential deficit?
For the Jindal budget team, used to patching and caulking the budget, probably not. In fact, most shortfall numbers are high, because since the administration of Gov. Mike Foster, the practice has been to make state agencies absorb some of the shortfall’s impact by tightening up day-to-day expenses, or eliminating vacant positions, or other such devices.
As Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols observed, about $150 million of the shortfall number is for inflation or growing expenses that might not materialize. More likely, that will be pushed down the official food chain to the departments to absorb.
So what is the real number? The $991 million of shuck-and-jive money in the fiscal 2015 budget is being spent on actual state expenses and services. That makes it much more of a real number than the usual shortfall.
And that’s a lot of money, and a considerable part of it is money that won’t be around for the state to collect in fiscal 2016. We think that’s a real number. Legislators ought to be worried about that, even now.