A grueling special session in which Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers grappled with a $900 million shortfall in the current fiscal year’s state budget came to a close on Wednesday.
Now comes the hard part.
It’s a measure of Louisiana’s fiscal mess that the special session’s budget agony didn’t even represent the pinnacle of pain facing state leaders this year. Even more red ink for the coming fiscal year — starting on July 1, only a few months away — will mean a fresh slate of draconian choices when lawmakers convene on Monday for a regular session. Since the state constitution forbids considering new tax measures in a regular session, another special session could be in Louisiana’s future before 2016 comes to a close.
The current fiscal year ends June 30, and the new fiscal year includes a nearly $2 billion projected deficit. Lawmakers acted to reduce at least some of that shortfall in the special session, but a huge gap remains.
All of which begs an obvious question: If the governor and legislators struggled so hard to find common ground in facing this fiscal year’s crisis, how are they going to reach consensus for the budgetary Armageddon looming on July 1?
All we can hope is that making hard decisions will get easier with practice. Those tough choices were essentially deferred during the eight years of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, as Jindal used an array of accounting gimmicks to forestall the state’s day of budgetary reckoning.
Another result of Jindal’s leadership was an all-or-nothing approach to governance that discouraged constructive compromise. Little wonder, then, that today’s lawmakers seemed so inexperienced in the give-and-take negotiations that lead to legislative breakthroughs.
Inexperience informed the session’s general tone, as a brand-new Democratic governor worked with a brand-new Republican House speaker not of his choosing, Taylor F. Barras, of New Iberia. Tellingly, a pivotal player in the session was Senate President John Alario, a veteran lawmaker and Democrat-turned-Republican whose years at the Capitol have given him some serious schooling in the art of the deal.
Was the special session a decent deal for taxpayers — the ultimate deciders on the merits of the session’s work?
Suffice it to say that we expect few high-fives as the results are rolled out. Lawmakers approved a mix of budget cuts and tax increases, neither of which will be popular. We reserve the right not to be satisfied with all of it, either.
If the definition of a compromise is an agreement in which no one leaves the room completely happy, then the special session fit the standard.
More tough compromises lie ahead. They’re not pretty, but the alternative — a fiscal abyss threatening schools, colleges and essential state services — would be even worse.