Amid all the facts and figures, and the personal appearance of Gov. John Bel Edwards, legislators and the public must have a lot of questions after the House Appropriations Committee heard the latest bad news last week about the budget.
The big issue is not the one stressed by Edwards, who underlined the importance he attaches to the budget shortfall by making himself available for legislators’ questions. His focus, reasonably enough, is that the state has by his reckoning about $745 million in bills coming in next year that the Treasury doesn’t have the money to pay.
“Make no mistake, we need additional revenue,” Edwards told the committee, promising yet another tax-raising special session “as soon as we can.”
We cannot object to the governor’s feeling of urgency, although that does not appear to be shared by the Legislature, which is fiddling around with a good bit of legislation that seems a lot less important than the budget gap. Lawmakers are on track to fill out their authorized legislative days, instead of hustling to wrap the regular session in time for a June special session. Perhaps they are not eager to take any heat for raising taxes, and after the 2015 Legislature trimmed some of the tax breaks — mostly, giveaways for favored industries — the lobbyists are putting pressure on to keep their clients’ tax-favored status.
So far, the public does not blame Edwards for bringing a lot of bad news to the legislative table. As recent polling by LSU and others has pointed out, the old governor’s mismanagement of state finances means there are not many good options for the new governor or Legislature. The people understand that, but they want leadership toward solutions.
That leads us to the larger question: What is the permanent fix?
The governor pointed legislators to yet another study committee on the broken state tax system. We also hope and expect that the committee of experts will propose something more reasonable than the emergency one-cent sales tax hike already enacted. It’s a temporary tax, we’re told, but that means the governor and Legislature at some point have to raise taxes again, if only to replace the revenues that are scheduled to go away in the next year or two.
So what are those replacement revenues going to be? We don’t know, and we are even more puzzled about whether legislators are comfortable with their roles in this drama.
“A lot of us believe that we need to look at the structural things we are doing wrong and fix those first and see where we come out on the revenue side,” state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, told the administration.
Sadly, we don’t know that legislators have the guts to tackle structural change: The majority, including Schroder a good bit of the time, almost always went along with Gov. Bobby Jindal during years of reckless budget cuts, tax exemptions and phoney money spending in the budget. Their credibility is limited, but that just leaves the process by which permanent solutions are achieved even murkier. As of now, the legislative calendar requires adoption of a budget that cuts $745 million or more from programs, after Edwards and his team — to their credit — already had written off the phoney money that was so characteristic of the Jindal days. Does that mean thousands of students without the TOPS tuition grants they were counting on, or closure of some public hospitals? Maybe, but there seems little in the way of fixes that can be adopted this spring to change what Edwards rightly called “nasty” cuts.
If we’re headed to a June tax-raising special session, as the budget presentation boiled down to, the big question facing the state remains unanswered: How do we generate enough money to pay the bills, permanently?