As Gov. Bobby Jindal prepares to leave office with a 100 percent record for midyear budget crises, he announces that he will say farewell with a lap of honor.
He was due to be feeding red meat to evangelical Iowans right now, but because that didn’t pan out, he plans to spend the dying days of his term touring Louisiana “talking to folks” about “the progress we’ve made.”
Although the money has run short halfway through each of Jindal’s eight years in office — this time to the tune of $500 million — he does not regard that as a blot on his record. Indeed, he sounds quite preening.
“We will balance the budget just as we have done before,” he said. “We aren’t going to leave the problem to the next governor.”
Chutzpah is a requirement for any politician, but Jindal has it in spades. He wants credit for balancing the budget, when the state constitution allows no choice in the matter. Thus, every year when budget projections proved wildly optimistic, savage retrenchments have been inevitable.
Even then, whether the state budget really has been balanced every year is debatable. Jindal frequently has resorted to squaring the books by snaffling one-time money to meet recurring expenses. We have met the constitutional requirement for balance with an illusion.
But nothing is more laughable than the proposition that Jindal would not leave a problem for the next guy to sort out. He has long employed chewing gum and baling wire in hopes that he could get out of Dodge before the edifice came tumbling down. It pretty much worked at that, although his fiscal irresponsibility presumably helped to turn Louisiana voters against him and contributed to the disaster of his presidential campaign.
As usual, Jindal and the Legislature now will juggle the numbers to make the deficit disappear, while Jindal processes through what has become the unfamiliar terrain of Louisiana. It may be that he will find himself “talking to folks” who will take him to task for largely abandoning them to pursue his own ambitions.
It is tempting to suggest that it won’t take long to discuss “the progress we’ve made” under Jindal, but it cannot be denied that not all his legacy is a mess. He will, no doubt, be reminding those “folks” that he has enjoyed some success in attracting business and creating jobs. He is fond of averring that the prosperity of the private sector, not the state of the government coffers, is the true measure of an administration’s success.
Still, an improvement in the business climate cannot be indefinitely sustained without a thriving higher education system, and ours has been hard hit by the budget woes that have marked the Jindal years.
This time, Jindal’s balancing act spares colleges and universities, so long as legislators agree to take $28 million from the rainy day fund, but public health is in for yet another hit. Money that the health department had put aside to pay off a deficit in Medicaid now will be appropriated to plug the state budget.
The deficit has, thus, not been fixed but merely moved around. That will, however, be enough to make the numbers work once other relatively minor cuts have been made and the administration has tapped various programs that evidently accumulated $278 million in idle money while nobody was looking. Nobody was surprised that spare cash showed up just when it was needed. It seems to happen every budget crisis.
So, chewing gum and baling wire will work again, but maybe we will get a more stable system once Jindal has taken his last bow and the Legislature reconvenes next year. The state tax system should have been overhauled long before this, because it was obviously out of date before Jindal began his first term.
Thus, nobody was about to gainsay the Tax Foundation in Washington this month when it concluded that “Louisiana needs a tax structure that mitigates the volatility of the economy and current fiscal system, providing revenues that grow with the economy,” and “no longer requires short-term, temporary fixes to plug unexpected budget shortfalls each year.”
The Tax Foundation, after a five-month study in conjunction with Louisiana business leaders, has come up with “multiple options for changing the state’s sales, corporate income, individual income and property tax systems.” Why we’ve had to wait for a Washington think tank to urge some action is a question voters may want to ask Jindal when his triumph brings him to their neck of the woods.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.