Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke on Monday, Feb. 21, at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette along with a slew of congressional delegates, educational leaders and medical representatives to unveil three bills he will introduce at the upcoming state legislative session to abate budget reductions to the constitutionally unprotected areas of health care and higher education.
UL students as well as many faculty members, mostly from the political science department, flooded the main lobby of the usually hushed Edith Garland Dupré Library to huddle around an impromptu podium just before UL President Joseph Savoie gave a formal introduction.
"Something that has frustrated me year after year, both when I was at those positions and ever since I was elected as your governor, has been the fact that as we do our budget process year after year the two parts of the budget that are left unprotected disproportionately year after year are higher education and health care, and that's not right," Jindal said. "These should be our state's priorities."
Jindal said he has made the argument time and time again that Louisiana should put every dollar on the table as the state has had to tighten its belt over the years.
"It's not fair that when you look at higher education, for example, 95 percent of their state general fund dollars are not constitutionally protected," the governor pointed out. "If you look at other agencies and other spending, the vast majority of their dollars are protected meaning that we as a state can't do what every business and everything a family has to do when they set priorities, which is to look at every dollar, every spending, and say, what are our real priorities?'"
According to Jindal, the three pieces of legislation that are to be proposed will free up a total of $4.75 billion in dedicated funds currently locked away this fiscal year by providing more options for accessing these funds to help protect critical services.
The first piece of legislation Jindal proposed, sponsored by state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Natchitoches, would increase the annual 5 percent cap placed on cuts to dedicated funds to 10 percent and potentially free up $43.6 million in previously inaccessible funds to help protect higher education and health care.
"This initiative will help mitigate budget reductions that would otherwise have to be made in health care and higher education during tough budget times," elaborated Jindal. "This new law will give us another option to the legislature, to the administration to use when trying to meet tough fiscal time."
The second bill, also sponsored by Long, will offer access to the interest generated by statutory dedications during tough budget cruxes.
"This actually would allow interest earned on specific dedications to be used to ensure that critical services aren't disproportionately affected," Jindal said. "Usually the interest earned on funds simply just sits in those fund balances year after year rather than cutting critical services while allowing interest to accumulate in a protected fund in the budget. If you look at all of the different funds for the current fiscal year, just under $154 million in interest was earned."
The final piece of legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-District 33, would require the "sunset" of all dedicated funds with few exceptions.
"We've got literally hundreds of dedicated funds dollars that are locked in and sometimes these dedications were put in years ago," explained Jindal. "Those authors may no longer be in the Legislature, their supporters may not even be in Baton Rouge anymore. People may even forget why those funds were created in the first place. I think it is bad budgeting practice to lock up all of these funds, [to] lock up all these dollars rather than force programs to compete year after year to come to the Capitol to show that they really are priorities, that they really do deserve our tax dollars."
"The three (bills) taken together seem like a comprehensive proposal to unlock some of the state's funds that are not subject to spending in the general fund," observed Pearson Cross, Ph.D., head of the political science department at UL Lafayette, who was in attendance for Jindal's speech.
"From a reform standpoint, I think it's a great idea," added Cross. "The governor's trying to walk a fine line between an innate distrust of government, which prompts the development of dedicated funds, and the need to have budgetary flexibility in times of crisis. If we trusted government we wouldn't have dedicated funds, we would trust government to take care of the things that need to be taken care of, but we don't trust government and hence the funds come on. This is typical all across the states, across the South and all across the country, which is governors are deprived budget flexibility by all these funds to the point where when a serious crisis takes place governors find that they can't respond in ways that are appropriate and this is a clear case of that."
Many among the coalition of legislative, academic and medical representatives were given a chance to step up to the podium to briefly share their respective thoughts on the legislation. They included Sen. Long; Sen.-elect Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan; Phyllis Dupuis, Louisiana Technical College regional director; Rickey Guidry, chairman of Louisiana Independent Pharmacies Association; John V. Lombardi, president of the Louisiana State University System and Southern System President Ronald Mason Jr.; Randy Moffett, president of the University of Louisiana System; Robert Levy, chairman of the Board of Regents; Jan Jackson, senior vice president of finance and administration at Louisiana Technical College-Alexandria Campus, and Randal Johnston representing pharmacist John Madisino.
Those present who chose not to speak were E. Gerald "T-Boy" Hebert, member of the UL System Board of Supervisors; Winfred Sibille, chair of the UL System Board of Supervisors; Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette; Rep. Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette; state Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas; Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, and state Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette.