The opening of a special legislative session on Valentine’s Day seems like an accident of the calendar, so even on a day devoted to the wonders of a warm heart, we won’t expect much love to be on display as Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers begin to grapple with a looming budget disaster.
The theme at the Capitol today won’t be red cardboard hearts but oceans of red ink — the result of disastrous fiscal policies of the previous administration, a drop in oil prices and generally dismal corporate income and sales tax collections.
So, while we don’t expect Edwards and the Republican-controlled Legislature to love each other, what we’d like, at the very least, is mutual respect and a shared recognition of the urgency of Louisiana’s problems.
The times demand no less.
During the special session that opens today, the governor and legislators must address an $850 million shortfall in the current fiscal year’s budget. Another $2 billion gap in the budget that begins July 1 only complicates the problem. Given the numbers, a mix of tax increases and budget cuts seems inevitable.
Edwards last week described the consequences of inaction as a “parade of horribles,” a compelling metaphor for residents who generally think of parades as something to celebrate.
But the grim procession of worst-case scenarios that Edwards mentioned is like nothing envisioned by the recent revelers of Mardi Gras. Without swift remedies, Edwards said, college students could find their TOPS scholarship awards jeopardized, universities could be unable to make payroll by spring and critically ill, poor patients could be unable to access life-preserving services.
Anyone who’s lived in Louisiana a few years is familiar with doomsday budget predictions at the Capitol, so yet another alarm about the state’s finances is bound to fall on some ears as just more Chicken Little.
Even so, the scope of today’s challenges seems different. Edwards’ predecessor, Bobby Jindal, leaned on one-time money to fill budget holes, but after years of such gimmicks, those one-time funds are pretty much gone. Oil prices are at historic lows, and that also means a lot less money for state coffers. “For all practical purposes, Louisiana is in its own recession,” said Greg Albrecht, the Legislature’s chief economist. “We’ve got weakness in the corporate sector, weakness in the personal income sector. We’ve got weakness in the sales tax sector. We’ve got weakness in the mineral sector.”
On the same day that Edwards took the unusual step of using a statewide television address to brief the public on the state’s problems, Donald Trump upstaged him in the news cycle by visiting Baton Rouge. It underscored an underlying challenge for the session – namely, that as Louisiana residents follow presidential campaign politics, they might not be sufficiently focused on problems closer to home.
We hope that’s not the case. Edwards’ address, whatever its political effectiveness, at least acknowledged that the taxpayers directly touched by Louisiana’s budget problems must be involved in the solutions.
That attitude needs to continue in this winter of Louisiana’s fiscal discontent.