The voters have spoken, and now Louisiana’s governor and lawmakers will have less flexibility in managing the state budget.
Among the proposed amendments to the state constitution that were approved by voters in the Nov. 4 election were three measures that protect special funds from other uses in the state budget. Those new restrictions mean that other areas of the budget, such as higher education, are even more vulnerable to the budget ax during lean times.
The Louisiana Medical Assistance Trust Fund, sustained by fees paid by some health care providers such as nursing homes, is used to provide a state match for federal Medicaid dollars that help keep these providers afloat. Amendment 1, which got a thumbs-up from voters, protects that fund from being raided for other purposes, and also sets a floor for rates of reimbursement provided to nursing homes and other providers that participate in the fund.
Amendment 2, also approved by voters, places the same kinds of restrictions on a fund that would be used in a similar way for hospitals.
Additionally, voters approved Amendment 8, which constitutionally protects from other uses the money in a fund that pays for development of artificial reefs off Louisiana’s coast.
Years of tight fiscal cycles prompted Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers to use all sorts of gimmicks to balance the budget, including raids on other funds to pay for expenses elsewhere. It’s the equivalent of fishing for change between the sofa cushions to pay the light bill — an exercise in expedience that, quite naturally, has diminished public confidence in the budget process.
In approving these amendments, voters sent the message that they don’t trust the people they elect to manage the state’s finances. Given the state’s sorry fiscal condition these days, who can blame voters for being skeptical?
But as we said in voicing our opposition to these amendments, we’re afraid that they’ll make things even worse. In further limiting budget options during lean times, these amendments will put a bigger bull’s-eye on the back of other forms of health care spending, as well as funds for colleges and universities.
We can only hope that the fiscal pressure created by these new amendments helps hasten the day when state leaders have a mature and comprehensive discussion about the state government’s long-term financial needs — and the best way to pay for them.