Louisiana is accustomed to finishing at or near the bottom of "Best States" lists, but to come in dead last — for the second year in a row — in U.S. News & World Report's rankings clearly rankled Gov. John Bel Edwards. Edwards' communications director, Shauna Sanford, characterized the data gathered as "grossly outdated information that in no way accurately reflects the current gains being made throughout our state, especially in the areas of health care and education."
In a key metric that no one in the Bayou State could logically contest, Louisiana came in 48th in "fiscal stability" (just above New Jersey and Illinois). If the editors of U.S. News were watching the farrago in the Louisiana Legislature's 17-day special session last week, we probably would have been ranked even lower.
This special session is the Legislature's fifth since 2016. Like the others, it has been marked by sniping, finger-pointing, talking points and impasses. More than that, it revealed that GOP lawmakers who talk about cutting the budget are merely grandstanding. Last week, an attempt to renew the "temporary" one-cent sales tax that went on the books two years ago was championed by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, only to be shot down by Democrats and some Republicans. The result was a bizarre spectacle in which some Republicans castigated Democrats, including Edwards, for being unwilling to raise or renew taxes.
The House did come together in a unanimous vote to establish a "Louisiana Checkbook" website designed to provide more transparency to state finances. The "checkbook" idea is fine as far as transparency goes, but some warn that it will cost significantly more than promoters claim. Moreover, the checkbook website by itself won't save money, won't be built soon and won't reduce the looming $1 billion "fiscal cliff," which is why the special session was called.
Another idea that sounded tough but would do nothing to fix the budget in the short term was an ill-defined Medicaid work requirement. Even some Republicans have balked at the proposal, especially after learning that it would cost millions to implement and would save relatively little. We're not saying fraud doesn't exist in the Medicaid system; it does, and there are safeguards and auditors already in place to detect and prosecute it. The notion that many thousands of individuals are gaming the system and costing the state many millions of dollars is a myth. Like the checkbook idea, it sounds good but does not solve Louisiana's fiscal problem.
This special session is set to wrap March 7. As it entered its final week, it was unclear whether there will have to be yet another session in June to avoid a fiscal meltdown for public health care, infrastructure, education and other areas that define "best states" — and that legislators are loath to cut.
What's clear is that Louisiana isn't moving off the bottom of any "best" lists any time soon, no matter how we are measured.