"If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion."
— Avram Noam Chomsky
Springtime weather in south Louisiana. Property tax assessments. The fabled loup garou of Lafourche Parish. Professor Longhair's lyrics. The proliferation of nutria in the Bayou State. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. These are all examples of things that can be confusing and mysterious.
But not since Uncle Earl put socks on a rooster has there been anything as nonsensical as this year's legislative session. The state is suffering from a $1.3 billion deficit that, by all indications, is swelling at an uncomfortable rate even as you read this. Yet everyone from Gov. Bobby Jindal to freshmen legislators is acting with an unmistakable lack of urgency.
That's not to say grievances aren't being offered up for public consumption. In fact, there's enough rhetoric floating around these days to fill a failed cargo airport in Donaldsonville. Still, it's all a lot of talk and not much action. Consider the following:
1. Jindal's So-Called Test — By now, it's an overused metaphor, having been dragged through the opening salvo of a recession and carried around the nation on fundraising trips that had "nothing" to do with presidential ambitions, but it's just as true today as ever: This year's legislative session is a major test for the governor.
What kind of test? A clash of political skills pitting Jindal against lawmakers? If so, the governor is winning, and when the session ends on June 25, he'll likely still be winning. He is, after all, governor. That's the way the system is set up in Louisiana, although there's a chance that lawmakers may be setting Jindal up by delivering him a budget that he will have to trim further.
That whole scenario, however, speaks only to the short game. Where will Jindal's leadership take Louisiana in three years, after consecutive deficits have ravaged the state fisc? While cutting the budget is fine, Louisiana also needs revenue builders, and Jindal has offered only limited ideas. Granted, our state is still outperforming others around the nation, but they'll eventually catch up. Where will we be then?
2. A Process That's Visionless and Directionless — Jindal and a few lawmakers continue to stand in the way of a cigarette tax sponsored by Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans. Her measure would raise $500 million over the next five years. In Mississippi, GOP Gov. Haley Barbour, a man who's arguably more conservative than Jindal, has already brought down the tax hammer on tobacco companies to help his own state. Jindal, meanwhile, continues to protect the nicotine industry and sit on $14,000 in known donations from tobacco companies and their lobbyists (collectively contributed in 2007 and 2008).
Jindal and the Legislature have also failed to thoroughly consider putting off the repeal of an income tax swap approved last year. That tax cut reduced state revenues by $359 million, which could cover all higher education cuts and the lion's share of reductions to health care.
When real opportunities have cropped up to reduce the size of government, merge departments or abolish services, lawmakers balked. Even the governor's efforts to create a panel to streamline government have become largely symbolic, especially after lawmakers made sure his special commission would answer to them — and no one else.
3. No Budgetary Reforms in Sight — When the administration first announced this year's budget reductions, Jindal promised it wouldn't be just another across-the-board whack. In hindsight, that may be exactly what it was. Each department head was presented with a figure that had to be cut, and they were charged with doing the heavy lifting. In many instances, the budget bureaucrats did nothing more than retain the civil infrastructures that bear their powers and fiefdoms. That means state officials never took a hard look at the tangible returns that could come of their taxpayer-supported investments.
Moreover, lawmakers are going their own way and not following the administration. For instance, even though they were asked to reduce pork, more than $11 million worth of pet projects found its way into House Bill 1, the state's budget. There's $93,000 for the "Robert Wood Johnson Award to employees for innovations in work and business"; $150,000 for the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame and Museum; $100,000 for Catholic Charities; $100,000 for the Girl Scouts; $12,000 for a projector for a summer movie program in Beauregard Parish; $15,000 for the Princess Theatre in Winnsboro; and much, much more.
4. Ignoring the Problem — There are still five weeks left in this session, but it feels as though officials are kicking the can down the proverbial road, either hoping for a miracle or assuming they'll deal with the challenge later. Just last week, House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, advised against a May meeting of the Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines how much money the state actually has to spend.
Why would Tucker do this? Well, either revenues have dropped and the scope of pork projects will have to be trimmed, or revenues have increased and lawmakers will have to work to fill the holes in the budget. Or, maybe, it was a move to avoid further chaos.
But even before the session started, it seemed as if most elected officials were treating this as just another session, which it isn't. While it would have behooved Jindal to handle the deficit in a special session, it would have also been cost prohibitive. At the very least, the governor could have urged lawmakers to scale back their own proposals, but Jindal would have been held to the same standard. To be certain, Louisiana's colleges have enough to worry about right now without the proposition of allowing concealed weapons on campuses.
5. Corporate Welfare Wins — So far, the biggest winners have not been students, the sick or taxpayers. The golden carrots have been handed out to corporations. Jindal personally lit a fire under legislation to help move along the sale of a shuttered poultry processing plant in north Louisiana formerly operated by Pilgrim's Pride. Jindal had the Legislature rewrite state incentive laws to lure Foster Farms of California into the deal, which is being supported by $50 million in state funds.
It was a top priority for the governor this session, as was a new deal for the New Orleans Saints, which is likely why Jindal released the details of both negotiations at the same time. It established a detente between lawmakers from north and south Louisiana, who normally would bicker over such deals.
But whom do these initiatives really benefit, and how will they help the state three years from now? In times such as these, when administration policy is dictated by national ambition and chicken plants are allowed to cut in line ahead of education and other priorities, Jindal and lawmakers would be wise to remember an old country adage: The little white speck on the top of chicken poop is chicken poop, too.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.