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A Tale of Two Budgets


  On one of Gov. Bobby Jindal's many out-of-state trips this fall, he boasted on the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends that he had "cut taxes, cut spending and balanced the budget." To the rest of America, that probably sounded impressive. To those of us in Louisiana, it rang hollow — even untruthful. Last year, Jindal patched Louisiana's budget with the same one-time federal stimulus dollars he had famously decried, and in October the state announced it had closed the previous fiscal year with a $108 million deficit — making Jindal the first Louisiana governor in years to record a deficit. (Not surprisingly, Jindal neglected to mention that on the chat shows.)

  This year there's no stimulus, and Louisiana's projected budget shortfall has ballooned to $1.6 billion for Fiscal Year 2011, which begins July 1, 2011.

  Jindal's executive budget is due in March, and in early December he began talks with health care and education leaders (among others), who will bear the brunt of budget cuts. In recent months, the budget situation grew so worrisome — and Jindal seemed to become so detached — that state Treasurer John Kennedy produced his own 16-point budget proposal. Kennedy claimed his plan would save $2.6 billion a year and protect Louisiana's health care and education systems. Paul Rainwater, Jindal's commissioner of administration and point man on the budget, responded that Kennedy's numbers were flawed. Even if that's true, Kennedy at least outlined the beginnings of a plan. All Jindal knows for sure, he says, is that he will not raise taxes. That's a good sound bite for national TV, but it falls far short of constituting a plan. In fact, it does nothing to address Louisiana's structural fiscal problems.

  Contrast Jindal's talking-point approach to Mayor Mitch Landrieu's roll-up-the-sleeves approach to a city shortfall that was nearly $80 million in the current year — higher than anyone thought when former Mayor Ray Nagin left office. Landrieu held meetings in each council district, gathered public input, met repeatedly with City Council members, and implemented a series of austerity measures, including unpaid furloughs at City Hall. At the same time, he renegotiated politically sensitive contracts with all three city garbage contractors, closing the deals with lower costs and restored citywide curbside recycling programs. He also doubled city support for the long-neglected New Orleans Recreation Department, proposed a modest increase in District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's budget, and put more resources toward lighting, street repairs and blight reduction.

  The tradeoff? A proposed 8.74-mill "roll forward" in property taxes (back to the 2007 levels) and higher monthly sanitation fees. No one likes higher taxes, but sanitation fees hadn't been raised in more than two decades. The council hiked the fees and rolled the millage back up 6.74 mills, and on Dec. 1 New Orleans took a giant step toward its first truly balanced budget in years.

  Say what you will about Landrieu's plan, there's no denying that it's a real city budget, a fiduciary blueprint that reins in spending, corrects structural deficits, makes wise investments — and balances in the end.

  The same can't be said of Jindal's tack. While the 2011 "cliff year" loomed, Jindal spent much of this fall on the road, promoting his book (and himself) nationally, leaving the state's higher education and health systems to brace for more cuts. Colleges and hospitals historically are the least protected budget areas — and that's probably by design. They make convenient excuses for tax increases. Now, however, we have a governor who vows to retain his "tax virginity," which leaves hospitals and higher ed fighting over fewer and fewer state dollars. The truth is it shouldn't come down to hospitals-versus-colleges; the governor should lead by recognizing that Louisiana must do more than cut — it must also invest. In short, he should follow Landrieu's lead.

  Unfortunately, Jindal has chosen to pass the buck to educators — while berating them to stop whining. "We need leaders to provide specific plans on how we can do a better job delivering more services for our people right here in Louisiana," he says.

  We agree that Louisiana needs leaders with specific plans. We'd like to see our governor be such a leader.

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