Gov. John Bel Edwards insisted during his highly unusual address Thursday night that he wasn’t trying to scare people.
Well, of course he was.
Why else paint a doomsday scenario on statewide television three days before the Legislature will gather to deal with an immediate cash shortfall of nearly $1 billion and a hole twice that size for the fiscal year that starts in July? Why else talk of hospitals and colleges shutting their doors, of severely disabled children being denied care, of widely used Taylor Opportunity Program for Students college scholarships evaporating, of football seasons being suspended?
Still, whether Edwards was telling the hard truth or channeling Chicken Little isn’t the most important issue.
The more central questions are these: Was Edwards credible? And do people listening believe his proposed solutions — which hinge not just on spending cuts but on tax increases — are the best, or only, ones?
Edwards did trip over his own scare tactics on a few fronts. Before the speech, he suggested that TOPS students could see unanticipated tuition bills for the current semester if the Legislature doesn’t take his advice and vote to raise taxes as well as cut spending.
After, though, he said the schools, not the students, would absorb the cost for this year, even as he warned that fewer scholarships might be available for next year.
The football threat got plenty of attention, too, but it would require a journey down an equally unmarked path, with student-athletes declared ineligible because their teachers can’t be required to teach because the universities can’t meet payroll.
Elsewhere, though, Edwards was on much more solid ground. The thought of cutting New Opportunity Waivers for families of those with severe disabilities is truly terrifying, and the funding arrangements for the state’s public-private hospitals, as negotiated by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, were problematic even under much better economic circumstances.
And as always, higher education joins health care on the hot seat because they’re the largest budget areas that aren’t shielded under the law or the state constitution. So specific threats to TOPS and sports programs aside, the possible cuts are real and potentially crippling.
But even if Edwards oversold the likely pain, his critics did just the opposite.
In what was billed as the Republican response, state Treasurer John Kennedy, a candidate for U.S. Senate, resorted to his own scare tactics delivered via a stream of folksy one-liners.
He accused Edwards of seeking the largest tax increase in Louisiana history. He painted visions of Medicaid patients running to the emergency room to treat their acne, as if overuse of emergency care was the root cause of the shortfall rather than one of many challenges.
He scoffed at the idea of the state collecting taxes on items purchased over the Internet, one idea that most see as inevitable and that has such widespread support among politicians that the Legislature approved it last year, only to watch Jindal veto it.
Kennedy and Edwards did agree on one point — that Jindal did much to cause the problem when he propped up years of budgets by raiding trust funds and using one-time money to pay recurring expenses.
With nobody else left to defend the former governor’s honor, his political guru Timmy Teepell took to Twitter to declare Jindal’s fiscal record “strong” and to accuse Edwards of “manufacturing a crisis so he can grab our money to pay for all his campaign promises.”
Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group associated with the politically active Koch brothers, issued a poll showing that most Louisianans don’t want to pay more taxes. Go figure.
Edwards actually buried his strongest argument deep in the text of his speech. Jindal and the Republicans in the Legislature ran the place for years, he said.
“If stabilizing the budget were as easy as cutting spending and simply reducing state contracts, that work would have been done,” he said. “But it hasn’t.”
A big part of Edwards’ challenge is that residents have heard frightening scenarios before, only to watch politicians head off the worst-case scenarios at the last minute. This pattern, though, has left the officials with fewer options each time, and Edwards did his best Thursday night to make the case that this time, there’s no easy fix.
How well he did it will determine a lot about how his still-new administration will fare, both in the special session and over the next four years.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.