Do leaders of the state House get that we can see them? I wonder sometimes.
So, I think, does Gov. John Bel Edwards.
What has played out over two years and counting as a high stakes, slow-motion political showdown over funding government hasn't happened in some back room. It's taken place right out in the open, where the uncertainty has real ramifications.
And as the Democratic governor takes yet another pass at coming up with a tax plan that would avert $1 billion or so in spending cuts come July, he's calling on the House's mostly Republican leadership to figure something out soon, so that the decision doesn't get pushed to the last minute.
Those are really the only remaining options now. Edwards is set to introduce his proposed budget Friday, and without a way to replace the temporary sales tax revenue that is set to expire June 30, the budget will feature steep cuts to higher education and health care. He's said repeatedly that it won't be a budget that he wants to sign or implement (although you can expect his opponents to hang it around his neck come election time) but it's one that he's mandated to produce.
LaPolitics' Jeremy Alford reported last week that the budget may effectively zero-out the popular TOPS scholarships, which would surely get everyone's attention. Edwards is actually an avid supporter of TOPS, to the point where he made it clear during his Monday address to the Press Club of Baton Rouge that, despite a legislative task force's ongoing efforts to curb long-term costs, he's more interested in fully funding the program than in changing it.
Friday's also the deadline Edwards set to head off consideration of that budget, although he said last week that if there's some sign of an agreement brewing — a huge if — he could be flexible. The governor still hopes to call a special session for after Mardi Gras to adopt a new, more permanent revenue plan and head off the cuts that he'll propose next week. Because lawmakers are barred from passing revenue measures during this year's regular session, which runs from March 12 through June 4, the only other option is for them to come back afterward and act on deadline.
Speaking at the Press Club last week, the governor argued that waiting isn't just a chaotic way of governing, but could do some real damage.
Among those who he said are watching are credit rating agencies, which must assess whether the state will have enough money to meet its debt obligations.
Private sector employers that rely on government — including the hospitals that are part of the state's relatively new public/private partnerships — need to know whether to prepare required layoff notices should they be forced to make cuts in July, he said.
Potential state university students and their parents are wondering whether the TOPS scholarships and Go Grants they've been told they can count on will actually be there. As LSU President F. King Alexander wrote in The Advocate last week, students generally make their college decisions for the following fall by May 1, so time is of the essence.
Left unspoken but fully understood was a common Edwards refrain, that the options won't be any different, or better, in June than they will be in February. The recommendations that a legislatively-approved task force offered last year, when lawmakers originally said they'd tackle the problem, remain on the shelf, even though Edwards has largely endorsed them. Edwards is reluctant to renew the temporary sales taxes on the grounds that they're regressive, but House leaders haven't offered a specific counter-proposal. Where we are is exactly where we've been for quite a while now. The whole matter has taken on the trappings of an insider game, a battle for political advantage and bragging rights among professional pols.
Too bad it's those on the outside who have to worry about the implications.