James Gill: Don’t fall for it ... Bobby Jindal’s ‘magic touch’ with Louisiana budget is imaginary _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Gov. Bobby Jindal answers questions after signing SB667 concerning legacy law suits into law on the last day of legislative session.

We knew that Gov. Bobby Jindal was a modern Midas, because no sooner had he taken up ethics than we had the “gold standard.”

The magic touch has not deserted him. Just when a budget deficit loomed, he turned over a cushion in some dark corner of the Capitol, and found a wad of cash.

Thus, instead of being $141 million in the hole, Louisiana suddenly had a $178 million surplus.

Alas, miracles are not widely credited these days, and the cynics pointed out that Jindal needs to convince voters that he has handled the state’s finances prudently if he is to have any chance in the presidential race.

They therefore suggest that this windfall may be as just as imaginary as the tales of ethics reform with which he regales audiences when he is on the campaign trail at a safe distance from Louisiana. He doesn’t go on about it around here these days, since we know he rigged the law to make it largely unenforceable on the general run of politicians while ensuring that his office is largely spared public scrutiny.

But an air of mystery is vital if our faith in miracles is to be maintained. A governor who can cut taxes, improve services and still have money in the bank needs powers beyond the common understanding.

The suspension of disbelief became harder to maintain when it appeared that the state was running a deficit that would require another round of mid-year cuts. Jindal must have hated the thought of the pain that would bring to registered voters here, and the resultant knock on his credibility on the national stage.

O ye of little faith! Up popped his Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols to announce that hundreds of millions of dollars had been lying around for years and nobody had noticed.

How this huge oversight had occurred was something of a bafflement. Nichols merely explained that the money was sloshing around in “a variety of funds.” Hey, presto.

This came as quite a shock to state Treasurer John Kennedy, whose bean-counting abilities have always been held in high regard. Kennedy did not flat-out accuse Nichols of cooking the books, but said he wanted “to make sure we don’t have a manufactured surplus here.” He said that “the methodology we have always used” indicated a deficit, but the administration appeared to have switched from the “modified accrual” accounting that is standard for state governments to “cash balance.” No, I don’t speak the lingo either, but the new method allegedly enabled the administration to count money that was already spoken for.

Nichols rounded on Kennedy to suggest he make sure he hadn’t overlooked even more revenues. Legislative leaders, alerted to the new method in a conference call, had given their approval, she said.

But legislators who agree with the governor are not always speaking their minds, and Kennedy is a long way from the only expert who believes the hidden cash is a figment of the administration’s imagination.

That indispendable source of news about state government, the Louisiana Voice website, rounded up old fiscal hands for their views on the Jindal surplus. “The hidden piles of money is a myth,” retired state budget officer Stephen Winham said. “This has to be the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen with regard to the state’s financial condition and its reputation.” It is “impossible to hide money in the state treasury today.”

Two of Nichols’ predecessors as Commissioner of Administration, Raymond Laborde and Stephanie Alexander Laborde took a similar line.

“Where were those dollars when the budget was being developed 15 months or so ago?” Stephanie Laborde asked. “If the money was there, it should have been seen,” Raymond Laborde noted.

Whether the money exists at all is a question that the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget has declined to address, preferring to wait for a report from the Legislative Auditor that is expected around the end of the year.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.