The latest news out of Baton Rouge reminds all Louisianans that our state remains mired in a cycle of structural deficits — a term used by Moody's Investors Service to describe former Gov. Bobby Jindal's irresponsible fiscal practices. In addition to a deficit from fiscal year 2016 (the first half of which occurred on Jindal's watch and all of which reflects a budget adopted by the GOP-controlled Legislature), Louisiana is running a deficit of $304 million in the current fiscal year. That news prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards to announce plans to call a special legislative session to enact midyear cuts and other emergency measures.
House Republican leaders, ever ready to oppose anything suggested by Edwards, criticized his plan but have not proposed a specific strategy of their own despite controlling the Lower Chamber for the past five years. Moreover, this year's deficit budget is their creation, not Edwards'.
The governor wants to tap the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund to the tune of $119 million and make up the rest by suspending or eliminating statutory budget dedications. Edwards' plan would spread the pain across many departments rather than concentrate cuts in the already-devastated areas of higher education and health care. Those two sensitive areas are the only large budget items not protected constitutionally or statutorily; they therefore bear the brunt of budget cuts every time Louisiana runs short of cash.
State Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria and the chair of the House Republican delegation, has offered a one-page alternative to the governor's ideas. Harris' proposal is long on promises but short on specifics. Harris, a businessman, says his ideas are his own and not necessarily those of the GOP delegation. He proposes $147 million in cuts to health care and additional cuts to roads and highways, state prisons, K-12 education, agriculture, tourism and state-financed construction projects. There would be no drawdown from the Rainy Day fund and no need for a special session, he says — but there are no specifics, just general areas of suggested cuts.
Harris says his plan represents "How I would do it as if this was my business." We don't doubt Harris' sincerity, but we do question the impact and the efficacy of his proposal. For starters, government is not a business and cannot function like a business. Businesses exist to participate directly in commerce and to turn a profit. Government exists to serve the common good; it is not profit driven. Businesses are virtual dictatorships; effective governance requires compromise and collegiality — which are sorely lacking in the current political culture. Health department officials say Harris' proposed cuts could decimate programs for the poor and uninsured, the mentally ill and people with disabilities — a far cry from serving the common good.
We'll take the optimistic view and say that Edwards and Harris at least have started a conversation. We hope the governor and state lawmakers will put partisan politics aside as they look for ways to clean up the mess left behind by Jindal and his legislative allies. The common good requires nothing less.