Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed a dire state operating budget on Jan. 22. Faced with almost $1 billion in expiring taxes, the governor proposed gutting the TOPS college scholarship program by 80 percent, cutting an additional $25.6 million in direct state aid to higher education, and slashing nearly half a billion dollars from the state's already-strapped Department of Health & Hospitals. "This is not the budget I want to present and certainly not the budget I want implemented," Edwards told lawmakers. "This is what falling off the cliff looks like."
There are several reasons why and how Louisiana got into its current mess. First, a temporary 1-cent sales tax imposed two years ago will expire June 30. Second, the Stelly Plan — which reduced state sales taxes and raised income taxes — was dismantled by former Govs. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, and Bobby Jindal, a Republican, in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Third, Jindal and state lawmakers propped up the state's shaky finances year after year by using one-time funds rather than recurring revenues. Jindal and lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — also failed to seek long-term fiscal reform.
There are no easy solutions. Unlike lawmakers, Edwards has proposed a solution, unpalatable as it may be. He suggests a handful of measures recommended by a legislatively created task force. Most of the governor's ideas are familiar, because the problem has not changed in nearly a decade. As Moody's Investors Service put it, Louisiana has a "structural deficit," meaning deficits are built into our budgeting process because lawmakers refuse to raise enough revenues to cover built-in expenses. Higher education and health care are the only budget areas that are "unprotected" and therefore bear the lion's share of cuts year after year.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, summed up lawmakers' response to Edwards. "I don't think you've spent the time honestly looking at our expenses," she told the governor. "I believe there are other opportunities to reduce the budget, and I would appreciate if you would take the time to drill down and look at those." Hewitt didn't say what "those" were.
Newly elected state Treasurer John Schroder, a Republican former lawmaker, said Edwards' plan "misses an opportunity for true reform." On the campaign trail, Schroder (whose office has nothing to do with budgeting or taxing) claimed there were plenty of places Louisiana could save money, but last week he offered no concrete suggestions.
Perhaps lawmakers and Schroder need a civics lesson. Governors propose budgets and revenue measures; legislatures must enact them. Some leading citizens likewise need to learn that lesson. Stephen Waguespack, head of the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (and, as Bobby Jindal's chief of staff, one of the architects of Louisiana's "structural deficit") said in a recent radio interview that part-time lawmakers can't be expected to come up with their own budget. That's ridiculous — and disingenuous.
Lawmakers certainly don't have to like Edwards' proposals, but finger-pointing and blame-dodging are not among their duties — and they do have a constitutional and moral duty to adopt a budget that serves the needs of Louisiana's citizens and is properly funded. They should get to it.