The next two months will make or break Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ term, in turn enhancing or sinking his uncertain prospects for reelection.
During the Democrat’s campaign, he sold himself as the candidate who would lead the state to fiscal stability. He criticized his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, for a second term that featured seemingly continual debates about how to pay for desired expenditures. Jindal’s last budget even called for temporary and permanent tax hikes to balance it.
But almost three years on, nothing has changed. Regular sessions plus five special sessions have produced three cycles of scrambling to cover projected deficits. During that period, Edwards oversaw the first time that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students did not receive full funding, a doubling of taxes on health insurance policyholders and the hospitalized that extracted nearly a half-billion dollars from them, and a sales taxes hike of a couple of billion dollars that disproportionately hit lower-income households.
None of that seems like a fulfillment of his vow, much less serves as a rationale for reelection. Chalk this record up to his insistence on pursuing an old-school, Louisiana tax-and-spend program that over the decades put the state at the tail end of U.S. economic growth. State dollars spent on operating the executive branch increased 7.5 percent in his first two years, almost three times the rate of inflation. Additionally, outlays of federal funds rose an eye-popping 31 percent.
If state spending of its dollars over that span had risen only by the rate of inflation, the “fiscal cliff” deficit — next year’s forecast revenues minus continuing this year’s spending level — wouldn’t exist. But fiscal restraint runs counter to Edwards’ ideology.
Instead, Edwards has put himself in the position where he must cajole Republican legislative acquiescence in permanent tax increases. Temporary hikes smack of kicking the can down the road, contrary to what he promised.
Further, any such increase primarily built on higher sales tax rates leaves Edwards open to accusations of expanding government on the backs of the poor, while college students and select industries reap benefits. So, he counts on muscling through a paring of income tax exceptions and increasing those rates, especially on corporations.
Plus, Edwards doesn’t want a budget concocted in the regular session, even if he calls a special session designed to add to it. He loses leverage if GOP leaders can pass a bare-bones budget in the regular session that leaves out his preferred spending items, then in a special session the Republican majorities tie the budget to specific revenue-raising measures that he doesn’t like.
The trouble for Edwards is in the Senate, which heretofore generally has complied with his fiscal will. Many Senate Republicans favor producing a basic budget accompanied by a menu of additional spending options if a special session creates more revenue. Should both chambers go this route, his vetoing this budget risks charges of caring more about growing government than putting it on stable footing.
If that happens, then in the subsequent special session, Edwards can’t reject GOP revenue measures, or else he becomes the guy who gutted state government. And he won’t get another chance to impose his budgetary preferences, as next year’s looming elections will make lawmakers skittish to raise taxes even temporarily after having done that three times in four years.
Edwards will do what he can to sabotage any regular session budget agreement, and in a special session hopes to maneuver enough Republicans into endorsing his favored approach of permanently higher income taxation, especially on corporations. Only that saves his fiscal agenda and thus his reelection chances.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.