The recently completed 2016 legislative season was a grueling exercise in trying to balance the budget during three sessions — 19 weeks — as partisan politics raged in Baton Rouge, Acadiana legislators said.
New Iberia Rep. Terry Landry and Lafayette Rep. Vincent Pierre, both Democrats, said legislative efforts to undo eight years of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cuts to higher education and health care were stymied by Republicans bent on keeping tax breaks for profitable industries and shunning tax increases on the rich.
“We were sent to (the Legislature) to represent people. We were not sent to represent special interests,” Landry told the Acadiana Press Club on Monday.
“Bobby Jindal cut the budget over eight straight years,” he said. “And he didn’t cut it surgically, he cut it with an ax.”
Jean-Paul Coussan, a first-term Republican from Lafayette, said the legislative fights reflected the priorities of those who elected them. He defended the Republicans who held the line at raising more taxes, and said much of the deficit that was reported was based on financial projections, not reality.
The Louisiana Legislature last week ended the final of three sessions — two special sessions called to raise more money and the regular April-June session, where legislators by law couldn’t pass taxes.
According to reports, Louisiana remains $200 million short of a balanced budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year that ends Thursday, and a few hundred million dollars shy of a balanced 2016-17 budget that begins Friday. Legislators did pass revenue-raising measures — such as a hike in the tax on cigarettes and 1-cent sales tax that will go away in June 2018 — but Republicans were successful in thwarting efforts to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and cutting tax breaks for out-of-state corporations.
Coussan said much of the reporting about the budget has used figures that are guessed at. He said that by August, when the 2015-16 books are closed, a clear financial picture will emerge. He also said the 2016-17 fiscal projections looks better than what has been reported.
“The budget is balanced,” he said about the 2016-17 budget.
Landry said the economic climate in Louisiana these days, and especially in hard-hit, oil-dependent Acadiana, calls for reining in the tax breaks that are benefiting profitable corporations.
“I don’t think Exxon is going to pull up their pipelines” if taxes increase, said Landry, a retired State Police trooper in his second legislative term.
Landry also said Republicans, after candidate Sen. David Vitter lost the election last year to Democrat John Bel Edwards, were setting the stage to win back the office in 2019 by handing Edwards resistance at every turn.
Pierre and Landry also lamented cuts to K-12 education, the first cut to primary education in decades, and the cuts to funds that were to go to private-sector hospitals that took over charity hospitals that Jindal would have closed down.
Coussan disputed much of the cuts Pierre and Landry said Republicans were responsible for, and said legislators worked together as best they could with a depressive economic climate hanging over their heads.
“Everybody was trying to find comprehensive solutions,” he said.