State Rep. Cameron Henry (left), R-Metairie, is among the House leaders opposing Gov. John Bel Edwards' solutions to close the Louisiana budget shortfall.
For most of the past decade, state lawmakers approved deficit-riddled budgets and draconian mid-year cuts to higher education and health care. For seven straight years (from 2009-2015, inclusive), they did it at the behest of Gov. Bobby Jindal, arguably Louisiana's worst governor ever.
The cuts would have been even more devastating had conservative lawmakers stuck to their guns about not spending one-time money on recurring expenditures. However, it wasn't just conservatives (read: Republicans) who helped Jindal leave Louisiana in shambles; many Democrats joined in. It was a rare, if destructive, show of bipartisanship.
Now, some Republican state lawmakers are criticizing Gov. John Bel Edwards (who voted for several of Jindal's budgets) for doing the same thing — except this year's budget deficit and the resulting mid-year cuts are entirely in their lap. Literally minutes after the 2016 legislative sessions ended, Edwards predicted that House Republicans' refusal to raise sufficient revenues would leave the state $300 million short this fiscal year. (The fiscal year runs July 1-June 30.) He was right. The state Revenue Estimating Conference now projects a $304 million deficit.
Lawmakers thus return to Baton Rouge this week for a special session to address yet another mid-year budget crunch — this one entirely of their own making.
Another key difference this year: there's little evidence of bipartisanship, particularly in the House.
To cover the shortfall, Edwards proposes tapping the state's so-called rainy day fund to the tune of $119 million, shifting budget items around to spread the pain (which otherwise hits higher education and health care hardest), and sweeping some one-time funds. His official "call" for the session also allows lawmakers to consider unspecified new and increased fees.
While the governor proposes no specific fee hikes, they could come into play as leading House Republicans fight Edwards' proposed use of rainy day funds. Some speculate that fees could be part of a compromise that calls for a smaller tap on the fund.
Compromise appears unlikely. House GOP leaders Cameron Henry of Jefferson and Lance Harris of Alexandria oppose pretty much everything Edwards proposes. Their every move appears calculated to unseat him in 2019. They say they want to make long-term cuts now, in the special session, and they accuse Edwards of using Jindal's budgetary tactics. Edwards says House Republicans created the current mess and offer no specific solutions, and that mid-year cuts require using one-time money. This is a formula for gridlock.
The annual session that begins April 10 presents a logical framework for long-term fiscal reform, which must include top-to-bottom spending reforms as well as tax policies rooted in fairness and, to the extent possible, simplicity. That will require compromise.
Louisiana politics, for all its hijinks, used to thrive on a level of collegiality and respect that allowed for compromise, regardless of party affiliation. No more.
The state Capitol rises just across the street from the Mississippi River, but the currents that flow through its legislative halls these days look more and more like the Potomac.