It happens to all of us. You reach into the closet and grab a coat that was last worn maybe to a bar or during a night on the town. After slipping it on, you reach into one of the pockets and there, long forgotten and wadded up, is a few million dollars.
Hey, it happens more than you might think. Just reflect on June of last year, when the Jindal administration suddenly discovered $23 million — cash the Department of Transportation and Development claimed it didn't know it had. (The same thing happened a month earlier, when DOTD found $140 million.)
It's quite possible the state didn't know it had all of this money because, in reality, it was all a mirage. That is, it could be one of the many, many reasons why the state today struggles to find money. The new fiscal year kicked off July 1 and now, at its midpoint, Gov. Bobby Jindal says there's a $248 million shortfall.
Cuts already have come. The largest hit the usual suspects: $108 million in health-related services and $84 million in higher education — and they're just the latest in a long line.
This midyear shortfall comes on the heels of $1.3 billion in cuts that lawmakers made last spring in preparation for the current fiscal year. Lawmakers and the governor, however, didn't cut enough it seems. Or maybe there was a wee bit of irresponsible spending during the past six months. Possibly it's both.
Either way, it should be clear to anyone with an abacus or calculator that there have been some questionable decisions with regard to spending money, making money and budgeting money. It just doesn't make sense, even to armchair accountants who follow the fiscal process from afar.
Back when the current budget was being crafted (during the spring of last year), the warning signs were evident. Tax collections were dipping, and most credible experts expected the trend to stay in a nosedive. Not surprisingly, the Revenue Estimating Conference, the panel that officially forecasts how much money the state has to spend, recognized as much in its Dec. 17 meeting. Jindal announced the midyear cuts just three days before Christmas.
The Thanksgiving holidays served as a respite of sorts for the Revenue Estimating Conference, as it took a backseat to Jindal's Commission on Streamlining Government. The governor formed the commission to find ways to absorb future billion-dollar shortfalls that are expected in coming years, but it's unclear if any of its recommendations will be taken seriously by the Legislature and/or the administration.
All that's certain is that the commission cost taxpayers about $20,000 in travel and per diem for members, plus untold thousands more in staff salaries, security and other administrative and professional costs. Moreover, instead of focusing on what the state's fiscal picture looked like during the past couple of months, elected officials, the media and public all took note of the commission's political hustling and bustling.
As the state tiptoes away from its $248 million midyear deficit, it would be a shame not to recall the money that could have been. The federal government, by way of President Barack Obama's stimulus package, offered Louisiana $100 million, with $33 million up front, to loosen its rules governing unemployment compensation. The latter probably would be in the current budget, but Jindal rejected that portion of the stimulus package. The governor argued that the changes would cost Louisiana $12 million annually, a disputed figure. Opponents countered that the Louisiana Legislature could have changed the unemployment rules back after the three-year stimulus money ran out, but Jindal stuck to his guns and grabbed national headlines for what was clearly a political calculation.
Louisiana could have done a variety of things differently over the past six months. According to the state's online expenditure system, more than $100,000 has been paid to Blue Bell Creameries since July 1 — yeah, that's the manufacturer of Blue Bell brand ice cream. It's sad, especially this close to the holidays, to think of a child without his or her ice cream, but dire times call for dire measures.
Another $600,000 has been dumped by state government onto various management consultants over the past six months, along with $2 million on household supplies and $20 million in overtime salaries. The examples are plentiful.
To paraphrase an old political adage: You find a million here and a million there and pretty soon you're talking about real money. Louisiana by no means has the worst budget in the nation, but there are certainly enough fiscal decisions out there to second guess. Maybe in coming months the state can learn from recent oversights, possibly as a New Year's resolution, because tax collections won't go on the uptick for some time — and there are only so many jackets hanging in the closet stuffed with forgotten cash.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.