How to fix the budget process now

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Bobby Jindal frittered away the $1.1 billion surplus he inherited from former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, then put Louisiana in a $1.6 billion revenue hole.
  • Bobby Jindal frittered away the $1.1 billion surplus he inherited from former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, then put Louisiana in a $1.6 billion revenue hole.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s assault on public higher education in Louisiana continues unabated, and it’s unclear whether state legislators will put up any resistance. University heads privately complain about Jindal’s unprecedented gutting of higher ed, but they cower in public for fear of losing their jobs.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have to figure out how to cover the $1.6 billion budget gap that they and Jindal created over the past seven years.

To recap, Jindal inherited a $1.1 billion surplus from former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. He blew that in his first year as governor and belatedly embraced the rollback of the Stelly Plan, which voters approved in 2002. That was a total hit to the state’s fisc of $1.4 billion in 2008. The rollback of Stelly has cost the state more than $300 million a year since then. Some estimate it costs $500 million a year by now.

In the years since 2008, Jindal has lavished billions of dollars in tax credits and exemptions on businesses that may or may not be creating jobs in Louisiana. Meanwhile, the state’s unfunded accrued liability (UAL), which is Louisiana’s version of the Social Security ticking time bomb, grew from $12 billion to more than $20 billion on Jindal’s watch.

More recently, Jindal blamed declining oil prices for much of the state’s fiscal woes, but that’s a lie. Falling oil prices account for, at most, one-fourth of the $1.6 billion shortfall.

Where do we go from here?

I like the suggestions offered by blogger and former legislative staffer C.B. Forgotston, who recommended some strong medicine in his blog post of Jan. 20, 2015. You can read it HERE. While I like Forgotston’s ideas, there’s no way legislators will muster the will to do all that this year.

There is something they can do, however, to reform the budget process immediately. It will take courage, and standing up to Jindal, but the alternative is to swallow once more the poison that Jindal has been dispensing since 2008. The latter won’t go down well among voters, who are plenty mad about Jindal’s cuts to higher ed. Here’s what I suggest:

In the first two weeks of the legislative session that begins on April 13, lawmakers should approve a constitutional amendment that, effective immediately, strips all constitutional and statutory budget dedications. That amendment should bar future dedications and be placed on the ballot in a special election in early June. Lawmakers can pay for that election out of Jindal’s travel budget and the state Department of Economic Development, whose leader just took a cushy job with the LSU Foundation. No need to spend money between now and July 1 on “economic development” if the governor is running for president and the chief job creator has taken a powder.

Lawmakers also should raise the cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack. That’s more than Jindal is asking — and Grover Norquist won’t like it — but so what? Voters overwhelmingly support a cigarette tax, and lawmakers have to face voters, not Norquist, in the fall. If Jindal vetoes any of this, override his veto. Voters dislike Jindal anyway. Overriding his veto will make them look like heroes.

Lawmakers then should pass two budgets: one pegged to the proposed constitutional amendment; one proposed by Jindal. Let voters decide which they prefer in June. If they pass the amendment, lawmakers will have done exactly what legislators are supposed to do: set priorities using available revenue — without having their hands tied by a mish-mash of constitutional and statutory dedications. If voters kill the amendment, then they’ll have only themselves and Jindal to blame for gutting higher education.

This plan requires unprecedented legislative boldness, but it can work.

Meanwhile, the four men running for governor should weigh in on this — and offer their own proposals. It’s one thing to run for governor; it’s something else entirely to act like a governor.

Given Jindal’s abdication, shouldn’t we expect his would-be successors to show that they’re worthy of the job they seek?

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