Connoisseurs of classic movies will recall the scene where Pee Wee Herman, performing some flashy stunts on his bike, comes a cropper in front of the neighborhood kids he is trying to impress.
Our hero rises to his feet and declares, “I meant to do that.”
This naturally springs to mind as we contemplate the end of Bobby’s Big Adventure. Ex-Gov. Jindal — how sweet that “ex” sounds — uses pretty much the same line about his own pratfalls. It was “not by accident” that the state wound up in its current jam. “We intentionally reduced the size of government,” he says.
He also boasts: “Every year we’ve had a balanced budget, and we’ve done it without raising taxes.”
Let us allow that all Republicans are for smaller government, but the rest of that pronouncement will merely confirm Jindal’s reputation as a purveyor of applesauce. It would require quite a cheek to claim credit for balancing the budget, when the Louisiana Constitution allows no choice in the matter, even if it had been done for real.
But the balance in Jindal’s budgets was between smoke and mirrors, and the state kept running out of money throughout his administration, while he’d rely on transparent accounting tricks he used to decry — such as one-time revenue to pay recurring obligations. And he did too engineer a net tax increase last year. The credits that purportedly offset it were a blatant sham.
The proposition that the debacle of the state budget was all part of a plan is thus advanced by a serial stranger to the truth. As a presidential candidate, Jindal needed to persuade voters elsewhere that his governorship was a success.
He, of course, continues to insist, forlornly, that it was, arguing that the appropriate measure is not the financial condition of the public fisc but the health of the private sector. If the government was of such little concern to the man in charge of it, no wonder Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Legislature need a special session to consider how to balance the books.
Jindal is getting some credit for his efforts to attract business and stimulate the overall economy, but the effect has not been as promised. Far from setting out to wreck government finances, he expected, or said he expected, that a rejuvenated private sector would shower Baton Rouge with tax revenue and take care of those pesky deficits.
It was partly through misfortune that it did not work out that way; oil prices went through the floor, and tax revenue failed to meet projections. Still, a conservative approach to budgeting requires contingency planning, and Jindal, with legislators tamely in line, preferred to take a gamble.
The notion that our current woes were no accident will not go down well at the special session, where legislators need to find $700 million by June 30 to plug the hole in this fiscal year’s budget. But that’s chicken feed compared with what lies in store for next year. The state is some $1.9 billion adrift.
There is no doubt some truth in the familiar plaint that Louisiana does not have revenue problem, but a spending problem. A state this small should certainly have no trouble rubbing along on an annual budget of $25 billion.
But, even if legislators agree on overhauling the tax system in the upcoming session, there won’t be enough money for an immediate fix. It seems inevitable that after eight years of Jindal’s implacable opposition to tax increases, a meeting of the minds will be needed to usher in a different approach. Edwards promises to tackle the budget imbalance in a new bipartisan spirit even though his former colleagues in the House refused to install one of his fellow Democrats as speaker. Legislators finally demonstrate some independence just when a united front is needed more than ever.
We can’t afford to have another governor falling off his bike.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.