Special session encore or retreat? Revolution or status quo in government? End of a political era or business as usual? Whatever happens during the Legislature’s regular session could reverberate for years to come.
Gov. John Bel Edwards fulminated during the recently concluded special session when House Republicans rejected his attempt to inflate oversized state government even more.
Now, lawmakers must work with $750 million less. Edwards has goaded Republicans to come up with proposed spending cuts, something they could do only in relatively small amounts when paring the current-year deficit. The short time remaining in this fiscal year left few options in that regard.
However, contrary to the doomsayer rhetoric of Edwards, lawmakers can balance the next fiscal year’s budget through reductions that impose no undue burden anywhere.
As the deficit comprises only 3 percent of the total budget, more-or-less uniform cuts across all of state government could erase the red ink. But it would be better to impose structural budget reforms, which would loosen many statutory dedications that now force spending on low-priority items.
A couple of bills break some or all dedications, allowing leaders to better set priorities.
As for major programmatic changes, while several bills tinker with the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, they would not transform it from an entitlement for mediocre academic performance to a genuine scholarship program. Cutting a couple hundred million dollars from TOPS’ almost $300 million baseline appropriation would force standards to rise.
Louisiana students historically have enjoyed heavy subsidies for their higher education (besides TOPS). Even after a 52 percent increase over the past five years, the average baccalaureate in-state undergraduate tuition and fees of $7,870 is more than $1,500 below the annual national average, ranked 34th among the states. (Two-year college numbers are a bit closer to the national average).
If institutions could charge undergraduates an extra 5 percent (on top of a planned 10 percent increase for most schools), that would bring in roughly $70 million more for higher education. One pending bill in the Legislature would do just that.
Unlike any other state, Louisiana provides charity hospitals for people defined as indigent. Changing state law to mandate service only to those below the 138 percent federal poverty level, which conforms to the federal health care law’s guidelines, could save at least $130 million annually, according to the bill’s supporters.
Throw in Edwards’ agreement to transfer the $44 million from this year’s teacher pay raises to school districts, and these changes already eliminate more than 60 percent of the deficit. The remainder can come painlessly from redirection of previously dedicated monies and targeted, modest cuts to many agencies’ anticipated administrative expenses.
On this point, the GOP majorities hold all the cards, because Edwards cannot spend what they do not budget. Republican lawmakers have no excuse to fumble away this golden opportunity to put government on a diet. Failing to do so supports Edwards’ argument for more taxation — and guarantees yet another special session devoted to more tax hikes.
If GOP lawmakers succeed in trimming the budget, they can demonstrate Edwards’ wrongheadedness and render him a mere bystander in policymaking over the next three years.
More interestingly, GOP success could signal the beginning of the end of Louisiana’s love affair with big government. A legislative majority with sustained commitment to right-sizing its government would alter permanently the state’s political environment.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at LSU in Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is the author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.