Last week, addressing state legislators' recent failure to renew or replace an expiring "temporary" sales tax, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said, "I hope the Legislature doesn't morph into the Professional Can-Kickers Association."
Year after year, state lawmakers have dealt with Louisiana's fiscal problems by applying the budgetary equivalent of duct tape and baling wire, using one-time funds and other gimmicks to pay for recurring expenses — all to avoid addressing systemic, significant, recurring shortfalls in the state's annual budget. Moody's Investors Service years ago summed up our predicament by noting that then-Gov. Bobby Jindal's fiscal policies had given Louisiana a "structural deficit." That deficit remains today because Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives are hellbent on keeping Jindal's disastrous policies in place — and because they don't want to give Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, a "win."
Edwards summoned lawmakers into a special session last month in an attempt to forge a compromise. Nothing got done. Now a second special session appears likely in late May or early June. July 1 marks the beginning of the state's fiscal year, and if nothing gets done in the coming special session, Louisiana's colleges and universities, as well as hospitals and corrections facilities, will bear the brunt of nearly $700 million in cuts, possibly more. It will be the sixth special session in recent years.
Lawmakers wouldn't have to meet again in special session if they had done their jobs in the first special session. Meanwhile, House GOP leaders and U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy keep harping about a "spending problem" but still haven't proposed a specific list of cuts. Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said in a Facebook post last week that the Louisiana Department of Health is "cannibalizing" other agencies. If that's true, Henry should be able to identify specific cuts to state health services that would eliminate the cannibalism. Otherwise, he's just grandstanding.
The one sign of hope is that some legislators are talking about forming a bipartisan centrist caucus to work across party lines rather than snipe at one another. In a show of genuine courage and independence, Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, resigned his chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee to protest the gridlock, while Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, stepped down as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Metairie and a CPA, is helping shape the new centrist group, which will include the handful of House "no-party" independents. While all legislators have bemoaned the political standoffs (sometimes while gridlocking the system themselves), it's encouraging to see some actually try to do something about it.
Statewide elections are next year — less than 20 months away. Voters should keep tabs on who's grandstanding and who's actually trying to solve Louisiana's problems. There's a significant national undercurrent against incumbents, particularly those who don't get things done. Louisiana remains mired at the bottom of every list of best states on issue after issue, and a big part of the blame should fall on state lawmakers who use gridlock as a political cudgel.