Where are the cuts? That’s a question that administrators like F. King Alexander find baffling because the president of LSU knows that the state’s flagship university has been cutting back on faculty and staff, wherever it can, for years.
But for many state legislators, particularly new ones, the notion that state government in any fashion is on an austerity budget seems like news-of-the-day. That is an underlying reason why there is such a significant disconnect between the new administration of Gov. John Bel Edwards and the GOP-led chambers on revenue-raising measures.
The governor and legislative leaders remain somewhat at odds over the money needed to balance the budget, although both say that new revenues and more cutbacks are part of the equation.
That is why administrators like Alexander have been appearing before legislative committees to talk about the impact of budget cuts over the last eight years, since in 2008 the Legislature and administration of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal began a tax-cutting and tax-break spree that broke the budget.
While some lawmakers are critical of the government, the fact is that significant reductions have been made in state spending, with real-world effects. And it is not just the newly installed officials of the Edwards administration saying so; there is independent verification by agencies like the Legislative Auditor’s Office.
Nor is the problem new.
In 2014, the auditor’s office found that high turnover, thinner staffing and heavier caseloads were challenges to the state agency charged with protecting neglected or abused children
“Overall, we found that (the Department of Children and Family Services) did not always conduct its child welfare activities in accordance with its policies and other requirements,” stated the report, signed by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.
In bureaucratic prose, that means the state is failing its most vulnerable young people. We’ve seen the consequences in recent stories in The Advocate about the young neglected to the point of police intervention, apparently after Department of Children and Family Services workers failed to follow up on the cases.
The new Department of Children and Family Services secretary, Marketa Garner Walters, told lawmakers the other day that her agency won’t be able to avoid drastic staffing cuts if the Legislature doesn’t find $15 million to make its budget whole for the fiscal year that ends June 30. “You cannot shut down an entire program,” Walters said. “You can’t just not investigate child abuse.”
The result of legislative inaction is likely to be the department failing — or continuing to fail — in investigations of child neglect and abuse.
At another level, the successful young students who go on to college, the state continues its pattern of what Alexander called “disinvestment.” LSU is spending about $2,000 a student less to educate its charges since 2008, while other states are raising their appropriations for colleges and universities, Alexander told the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday.
Alexander is right: “Why don’t we prioritize the things that really build our economy?”
We hope the message is absorbed in the State Capitol. In a season of political posturing over cuts, the realities are that Louisiana has mandated significant reductions in many services and that we’re at the end of the papering over of the budget with Jindal financial gimmicks and one-time monies. Those have been exhausted.
It’s a new day in which the Legislature has to come up with real money. Maybe it, and sometimes we as taxpayers, won’t like it. But it’s not because of a lack of tightening up in state government over the past few years.