The legislative session ended just three days before the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, but the spirit of Runnymede failed to invade Baton Rouge.
While the barons stuck it to King John, legislators, though a rebellious spirit was not entirely absent from the Capitol, did not in the end challenge Gov. Bobby Jindal’s right to lay down the law.
After the session closed, Jindal declared, “We wanted to pass a balanced budget that protected higher education and health care, and did that without raising taxes.” That proposition is manifestly false in every particular, but, when Senate President John Alario invited his colleagues to give themselves a hand, they responded enthusiastically.
Such an orgy of self-congratulation amid the fiscal ruins was a dismal spectacle. On the House side, Speaker Chuck Kleckley reached for one of those tiresome gridiron metaphors so beloved of politicians. “We crossed the goal line with the ball,” he exulted.
Had there been a referee to enforce the rules of math and semantics, legislators have been stuck in their own end zone.
To be fair, legislators had little choice but to embrace the transparent subterfuge that will enable Jindal to claim on the presidential campaign trail that taxes were not raised on his watch. GOP voters would have to be pretty gullible to accept that a $1.6 billion budget hole was plugged without any net increase in revenues, but Jindal knows his constituency and evidently believes he can get away with it.
Jindal had threatened to veto the budget if legislators did not go along with the no-tax pretense, and nobody doubted that he would happily plunge the state into chaos to boost his prospects for the GOP nomination.
Perhaps Jindal does indeed somewhat resemble King John, who promptly decided to veto Magna Carta, precipitating war with the barons. Legislators might therefore be said to have adopted the responsible course by buckling under and avoiding dire consequences. They may deserve some credit too for coming up with enough bucks to keep the state in business until the next crisis, confidently expected within months.
Still, the barons of the 13th century were clearly made of sterner stuff. They required the king, for instance, to “remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard de Athée.” Legislators would have performed a great public service by prescribing similar treatment for Grover Norquist and his clan at Americans for Tax Reform in Washington.
Norquist, whose blanket opposition to tax increases struck such a chord with voters that Jindal and countless politicians rushed to sign his pledge, now turns out to lack the courage of his own convictions. According to Norquist, the just-passed budget does not violate Jindal’s pledge because the tax increases contained in it were offset by cuts elsewhere.
That proposition is so patently absurd that Norquist’s fellow doctrinaires must feel betrayed. The supposed balancing act was accomplished by passing a higher-education fee that nobody would pay because it was cancelled out by a tax credit. Hey, presto! That imaginary break paved the way for real tax increases of a like amount.
When Sen. Eric Lafleur playfully proposed that DUMB — for Don’t Understand Meaning of Bill — should be the official name for this charade, its sponsor, Jack Donahue, got his feelings hurt. LaFleur, he complained, was “making a mockery of my bill.” No, he wasn’t. It was a mockery to start with, and Lafleur was merely pointing out the obvious. If such a stunt was enough for Norquist to look down and rule that Jindal had met the goal of revenue neutrality, nobody need take him seriously again.
In truth, although Jindal says the budget includes no net tax increase, the government will be relieving the citizenry of an extra $750 million in the coming year. That is still not enough to justify any claim that the budget is properly balanced; expenditures will so exceed revenues that trust funds must be raided, and assets sold off, to the tune of $600 million.
There is still not enough money on hand to maintain health services at their current, less-than-adequate level, and all four candidates for governor aver that the budget has been so chronically mismanaged that a special session will be needed as soon as we have seen the back of Jindal early next year. Once His Royal Highness has left the field, maybe we can get some straight talk.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.