Term-limited state lawmakers may turn out to be the lucky ones next fall. They won’t have to explain to voters why they went along with Bobby Jindal’s fiscal insanity and cut more than $700 million from Louisiana’s public colleges and universities over the past seven years. Heck, the cuts could exceed $1 billion by Election Day, particularly since Jindal seems predisposed to do nothing in the face of a projected $1.4 billion budget gap.
Well, not quite nothing — he is laying the groundwork for a quixotic presidential run. I’m not sure how he’s going to explain $1 billion in cuts to higher education, especially when he’s touting himself as the savior of public education in Louisiana. Then again, the national media rarely look beyond press releases, and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have no clue what a liar Jindal is.
Louisiana lawmakers facing re-election, on the other hand, don’t share Jindal’s Orwellian gift of spinning political manure into fawning press coverage. Moreover, a recent statewide survey by Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR) found that nearly 80 percent of Louisiana voters oppose cutting higher education. Unfortunately, the SMOR survey also shows that voters are no more realistic than lawmakers when it comes to crafting a solution to the state’s fiscal ills.
Truth is, Jindal made a fatal mistake during his first few months in office, and Louisiana has been paying for it ever since. He could have bottled up an ill-conceived bill to roll back the Stelly Plan. Voters approved Stelly in a statewide referendum in 2002. Granted, Stelly raised income taxes on middle class voters, but it also brought budgetary stability and lowered regressive sales taxes.
In 2008, the state was awash in cash because of federal aid that poured into Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the federal floods. In a move that foreshadowed future fiscal irresponsibility, Jindal belatedly supported the Stelly rollback, which cost the state $300 million then (and probably more than $500 million today), and then took credit for a “tax reduction” that wasn’t even his idea. He also spent a surplus of more than $1 billion.
To make matters worse, Jindal in subsequent years pushed budgets that clearly exceeded annual state revenues. A majority of lawmakers went along with the ruse. Jindal covered the deficits — yes, they were deficits because the state annually spent more than it took in — by breaking a campaign promise not to use one-time money for recurring expenditures. Over the years, Jindal got increasingly desperate in his use of non-recurring funds to pay for recurring costs, to the point that now, to paraphrase former Gov. Edwin Edwards, there’s nothing left to beg, borrow or steal. Thus we now hear talk of closing some college campuses.
All of which makes Jindal the most fiscally irresponsible governor in modern Louisiana history. Not that he cares. He can’t wait to get out of here and start lying to voters on a grand scale.
State lawmakers don’t have that luxury. What they do have is one chance to turn things around. When they convene for their annual session in April, they can summon the courage to tell voters the truth, make some judicious cuts (starting with the governor’s office) and pass legislation that raises revenue — by reinstating parts of Stelly and/or scaling back some of Louisiana’s overly generous tax breaks.
They will need to do this early in the session, because Jindal will not offer anything that remotely resembles leadership. If he threatens a veto, they will have to use a veto-proof procedural device to outflank him. It’s been done before, dating back to the 1980s when lawmakers outflanked then-Gov. Edwin Edwards by suspending a wide array of sales tax exemptions.
Somehow, putting Jindal on par with Edwards seems a fitting end to his tenure. Ironically, EWE had more fiscal integrity than Jindal. He only stole money — and he left enough behind to keep colleges open. Jindal has stolen much more. He has robbed future generations of any chance of attending a great public university in Louisiana.