Maybe the Jindal Administration's abaci are outdated, or perhaps there are a few missing beads or loose wires on the counting frames. Okay, the administration uses computers, but it may as well be sharing a single abacus for the amount of time it has taken to find the holes in the governor's proposed $25 billion budget.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget was presented to lawmakers Jan. 24. Debate didn't commence until the Legislature convened March 10. The budget must be balanced and passed by both the House and Senate. The new fiscal year starts July 1.
Over the past three weeks, the budget picture has seemed more like a comedy sketch than a deliberative process, beginning with the double counting of money collected during last year's tax amnesty program. That pratfall led to a $43 million hole in the health and hospitals budget for this year.
The administration said it filled that gap almost immediately with bond premiums and over-collections in other funds. But, unless the administration has more where that money came from, the latest gap-filler only diminishes the pool of available emergency cash if additional shortfalls occur.
They already have, in fact. Superintendent of Education John White has admitted to another $105 million gap in his budget ($55 million for the current fiscal year and $50 million for the next). He blamed both a "cash-flow" issue that inexplicably escaped legislative detection and a miscalculation of student enrollment growth. White's department estimated 3,500 additional students this fiscal year; the figure was actually more than 7,000.
Somehow, and not surprisingly, the budget has become the pons asinorum of Louisiana government, separating those who supposedly know what's going on from those who simply call it a chaotic mess. But who really are the smart ones here — those who use their brains to cobble together budgets by tapping rapidly drying wells of one-time money, or those who seek to make the budget process more honest but, in these tough times, even more austere than it already is?
The opportunity to reform the budget process was a primary reason Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand considered running for governor. Instead, he's seeking re-election, noting the state's budget problems are too entrenched. "I'm not interested in a science experiment," he said during a recent visit to the Capitol.
With nearly $1 billion in short-term financing propping up Jindal's budget, the challenges won't be neatly packaged when he leaves office. They'll likely be worse next year, when the federal government is threatening to withhold $307 million in Medicaid money until Team Jindal can justify its "privatization" plan for providing health care to Louisiana's uninsured.
Another worrisome trend is the growing number of agencies that no longer rely solely on dedicated or self-generated revenues. Examples abound.
Jindal's budget takes $12 million in hurricane recovery money and redirects it to the developmentally disabled. It sweeps $23 million from the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly (which has gone from $800 million to $30 million under Jindal) and moves it to home- and community-based health care. Another $6 million in wind damages from Hurricane Gustav will fund the Department of Corrections. Then there's the $50 million the administration wants to remove from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans to give to the Board of Regents, the Office of Elderly Affairs, the Department of Education and state libraries.
Budgetary legerdemain is nothing new, but Jindal has made it a template rather than a failsafe — and he's running out of one-time money to throw at recurring expenses. That means lawmakers will have to cut more — and deeper. On the chopping block are $60 million worth of pay raises for state workers; $40 million for a higher education incentive fund (known as WISE) that Jindal touted earlier this year; and $6 million in new money for higher education.
Lawmakers also haven't passed a proper Minimum Foundation Program budget for elementary and secondary schools since 2011, and may not again this year. The annual construction budget is similarly out of whack; it has twice the projects the state can afford to fund.
Even the most primitive abacus will tell you this experiment doesn't add up. If lawmakers fail to make the tough decisions, 14th-century technology will be all the state can afford. To many, it already feels that way.