We have a delightful little tradition around our office -- we still "kringle" one another. Only we do it anonymously, waiting 'til no one's looking before depositing candy or trinkets on someone's desk. A big part of the fun is trying to figure out who's kringling whom -- a secret that's not revealed until our office party on Christmas Eve.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants none of that on her watch. She wants us all to know that she's giving away $1.6 billion between now and Christmas.
That, in effect, is why she has summoned state lawmakers into a special session scheduled to start next Friday, Dec. 8, and continue through Dec. 18. Only the thought of parceling out that much dough could make lawmakers amenable to spending 11 days in a special session at the peak of the holiday season.
For some, it will be the first time in their political careers that they've been summoned into a special session to give money away rather than squeeze more of it out of taxpayers. That's heady stuff.
The reasons Blanco is filled with the Christmas spirit are two-fold: the state finished the last fiscal year with a surplus of $827 million; and tax collections are so bountiful this year that already she's anticipating another $800 million or so in extra loot.
Under our state constitution, last year's surplus is supposed to be dedicated to one-time uses such as highway construction, capital projects and debt reduction, but you can be sure Blanco's elves will be working overtime to get over that little speed bump. The anticipated surplus from this year is not so restricted -- as long as it's deemed "recurring" revenue -- and The Governess has a long list of good little girls and boys to reward this holiday season.
• Teachers, long a source of votes for Democratic governors, will get their long-sought pay raise. Happy holidays!
• Families with children -- the coveted political "middle" -- will get tax credits. Season's greetings!
• Various groups of public employees, including local public safety officers, will get salary increases. Merry Christmas, everybody!
• To help attract a manufacturing "mega-project" -- rumored to be a German steel mill in St. James Parish -- the state will dedicate an as-yet-unspecified pot of cash for infrastructure improvements. Frohe Weihnachten!
• Business tax cuts, which were being phased out, will now be accelerated, bringing smiles to all those Scrooges who otherwise think Blanco is as clueless as Tiny Tim. God bless us, everyone!
• Property owners, who are getting hit with 15-18 percent surcharges to cover the $1 billion hole in the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp.'s balance sheets after Katrina, will get "rebates." In her most Kringle-like move yet, The Governess wants $200 million paid out to property owners before January "so people can pay their holiday bills off." Why Blanco couldn't just plug the hole at Citizens and save everybody the surcharge in the first place is puzzling, but maybe I'm just being a Grinch.
Speaking of Grinches, Republican lawmakers don't think much of Blanco's agenda for the special session. They gripe that it doesn't include a comprehensive plan for dealing with the massive -- and continuing -- problems that plague the insurance industry. Governor Kringle wants no talk of such matters right now, however. She plans to address that issue during the regular session that begins in April.
The GOP leges, who initially pushed Blanco to give the surplus back to taxpayers, now warn that Louisiana may just be seeing a "false economy" based on one-time insurance proceeds and federal dollars. They predict that pumping even this year's extra cash into "recurring" expenses such as pay raises for teachers and public employees could saddle future Legislatures with bills they can't pay.
Now there's an interesting sight: lawmakers, particularly those who are term-limited, urging restraint.
Not to worry, boys and girls. Governor Kringle predicts we'll have five more years of cheery fiscal news.
It's pure coincidence, I'm sure, that five years will carry us precisely to the end of Governor Kringle's second term.
Am I being cynical?
- Maria Vidacovich
- Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants us all to know that she's giving away $1.6 billion between now and Christmas.