Faced with a budget shortfall for this year and next that’s now hovering somewhere near the $3 billion mark, Gov. John Bel Edwards has been sending the same message at every stop: If critics don’t like his ideas for addressing the emergency, which include higher and more broadly applied state sales taxes and a higher cigarette tax, he’d be happy to consider theirs instead.
Asked during an Advocate editorial board meeting this week how many helpful suggestions he’s heard from the Legislature, Edwards raised his arm as if he were about to signal that he could count them on one hand. He then formed his fingers into the shape of a zero.
Some lawmakers surely would dispute the governor’s characterization, particularly the Republican caucus leaders who sent the newly elected Democrat a letter asking that he expand the options available to them during the brief special session that begins Sunday to include things like Medicaid and pension reform.
In the interview, Edwards shrugged off the suggestion that some of these things could be accomplished in a mere three weeks and would produce the immediate revenue needed to stave off what he called a “parade of horribles.” Edwards also noted that the parameters he set in his special session call give them lots to work with, from reducing spending to attacking statutory dedications and consulting contracts.
If the state doesn’t come up with new revenue quickly, he said, it’s looking at making drastic cuts to the always vulnerable areas of health care and higher education. That could mean kicking patients out of hospice care and off dialysis, he said, or cutting back on payments to the new public-private hospital operators so severely that they could walk away, under overly generous terms adopted by former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.
On the higher education front, it could mean issuing tuition bills to students on the underfunded Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships, or not being able to meet payroll or offer summer school.
Edwards may be trying to make a point by painting such a bleak worst-case scenario, but it’s a real one. Handy solutions are in short supply.
And that’s not just on the governor but on the Legislature, which did little to fight off years of tax cuts, giveaways and raids of one-time money on Jindal’s watch. Lawmakers, particularly in the House, are now making a big show of claiming their independence and asserting their status as a coequal branch of government. It would have been nice if they’d been acting as a watchdog all along.
The one painless task before legislators is the repeal of the poster child of budget gimmicks, the SAVE act. The 2015 Jindal concoction created a higher education fee that nobody paid, negated by a credit that nobody got, all as a way of laundering tax increases so Jindal could keep his anti-tax record pristine in the eyes of presidential primary voters. It did about as much good for the state as it wound up doing for Jindal.
Lawmakers who went along with the scheme and those who didn’t — the latter category included then-state Rep. Edwards — pretty much agreed that its passage was one of the Legislature’s most embarrassing moments, which is really saying something.
The problem was that, by Jindal’s last year, all the saner maneuvers had been tried, all the easy money grabbed. Falling oil prices may have been the tipping point, but the budget never should have been so precarious in the first place.
It’s convenient and awfully easy to blame Jindal for much of the mess, particularly because he was so nakedly motivated by his personal ambitions versus the long-term health of the state. But he couldn’t have done so much damage without a critical mass of enablers.
So the legislative impulse toward equal partnership and shared responsibility is a good one, at least to the extent that it’s driven by problem-solving and not partisan jockeying. The real test will be whether lawmakers come up with a few good, practical ideas of their own.
The governor’s waiting. And he’s not the only one.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.