US. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say everyone’s entitled to his own opinions but not his own facts.
If the late New York Democrat hadn’t gotten there first, state Treasurer John Kennedy might have coined a similar sentiment last week, after Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration announced the suddenly rosy discovery of a $178.5 million budget surplus.
Rather than glee or even simple relief after so many tough years, Kennedy, a fellow Republican and frequent Jindal critic, voiced immediate skepticism over how the administration arrived at that figure. And he wasn’t the only one.
“If we use the methodology we have always used, we don’t have a surplus,” Kennedy said last week. “We have a $141 million deficit.”
So which is it? Do we have a surplus or are we in a hole? It’s kind of a major distinction.
And the fact that state leaders can’t agree on the answer says just as much about the atmosphere around the Capitol these days as it does about the state’s financial health, or lack thereof. Distrust seems to permeate every debate, particularly between the Jindal administration and, well, pretty much anyone else. Against that backdrop, the current disagreement amounts to business as usual.
Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, whose office produced the new figure, defended the revised methodology and scoffed at the naysayers.
“I’m surprised the treasurer is not reporting this,” Nichols said. “The treasurer’s obligated to see that revenue available is reported to the public. The money is available, and it’s cash on hand. He should probably do a review of the accounts to ensure that there are no more outstanding revenues he is not reporting.”
Instead, Kennedy announced Monday that he’d canceled conference calls with bond rating agencies in the face of uncertainty.
“I’m afraid that we’re pretending we have a surplus when we don’t,” he said in a press release. “I want to make sure we don’t have a manufactured surplus. I would be thrilled if we have a surplus. My fear is that we used funny math to create a surplus that doesn’t exist.”
Lawmakers haven’t had the chance to ask questions yet, and they’ll surely have plenty when the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget convenes Friday. Meanwhile, Legislative Fiscal Officer John Carpenter urged caution.
“All I’d say is that it’s a preliminary number subject to adjustment,” he said, noting that “we don’t yet understand how they got there.”
Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera also said he needed more details before forming a conclusion.
And there was this from the Louisiana Budget Project, a progressive watchdog and advocacy group: “Typically, in years past, this type of news was announced on a Friday morning before the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, where legislators have a chance to ask questions. It also seemed incompatible with what we knew about the state’s finances, as the fiscal year ended with revenues flat and the administration forced to take out short-term loans just to meet its financial obligations to colleges and universities.”
Such a widespread and immediate reaction might be surprising in another context but not here or now.
Jindal and those who’ll be here once he leaves office in early 2016 have been battling over taxes, health care, education and other issues for several years. Combatants range from other statewide officials and the people competing to replace him to former Jindal allies in the Legislature, at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and in the Department of Education.
Judging by the polls, a whole lot of voters agree with the general consensus around the Capitol that Jindal’s hell-bent on shoring up his national image, not leaving the state in good shape. The only question is how far the administration will go to do so.
Based on the reaction to last week’s budget announcement, a lot of people seem to think it would go pretty far indeed.