Five things about the ongoing regular session that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Springtime weather in south Louisiana; property tax assessments; the feu follet; the proliferation of nutria in the Bayou State; and hog’s head cheese — these are all examples of things that can be confusing and mysterious.
But not since Uncle Earl put socks on a rooster has there been anything as nonsensical as this year’s regular session. The state is suffering from a $1.3 billion deficit that, by all indications, is swelling at an uncomfortable rate even as you read this sentence. Yet everyone from Gov. Bobby Jindal to freshmen legislators is acting with an unmistakable lack of urgency.
That’s not to say grievances aren’t being offered up for public consumption. In fact, there’s enough rhetoric floating around these days to fill the vacant retail space in Lafayette. Still, it’s all a lot of talk and not much action. Just consider the following:
JINDAL'S SO-CALLED TEST
By now, it’s an overused analogy, having been dragged through the opening salvo of a recession and carried around the nation on fundraising trips that had “nothing” to do with presidential ambitions, but it’s just as true today as ever: the ongoing regular session is a major test for the governor.
But what kind of test? A battle of political skill with lawmakers? If so, then Jindal’s winning and, when the session ends on June 25, he’ll likely still be winning because he is, after all, governor. That’s the way the system is set up in Louisiana, although there’s a chance that lawmakers may be setting Jindal up by delivering him a budget that will have to be further trimmed by his hands.
That whole scenario, however, speaks only to the short game. Where will Jindal’s leadership take Louisiana in three years, after consecutive deficits have ravaged the state treasury? While cutting the budget is fine, Louisiana also needs revenue builders and Jindal has offered only limited ideas. Granted, our state is still outperforming others around the nation, but they’ll eventually catch up. Where will we be then?
A PROCESS THAT'S VISIONLESS AND DIRECTIONLESS
Jindal and a few members of the Legislature continue to stand in the way of a cigarette tax sponsored by Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, which would raise $500 million over the next five years. In Mississippi, GOP Gov. Haley Barbour, a man who’s arguably more conservative than Jindal, has already brought the tax hammer down on tobacco companies to help his own state. Jindal, meanwhile, continues to protect the nicotine industry and sit on $14,000 in donations from tobacco companies and their lobbyists (collectively contributed in 2007 and 2008).
Jindal and the Legislature have also failed to thoroughly consider putting off the repeal of an income tax swap that was approved last year. That tax cut reduced state revenues by $359 million, which could cover all higher education cuts and the lion’s share of reductions to health care.
And when real opportunities have cropped up to reduce the size of government, merge departments or abolish services, lawmakers balked at adopting such proposals or even debating them at length. Even the governor’s own efforts to create a panel to streamline government have become symbolic, especially after lawmakers made sure that his special commission would answer to them – and no one else.
NO BUDGETARY REFORMS IN SIGHT
When reductions were first handed out by the administration, Jindal promised it wasn’t just another across-the-board effort. But in hindsight, it may have been nothing more than that. Each department head was presented with a figure that had to be cut and they were charged with doing the heavy lifting. In many instances, these bureaucrats did nothing more than retain the civil infrastructures that bear their powers and fiefdoms. That means state officials never took a hard look at the tangible returns that could come of their taxpayers-supported investments.
Moreover, lawmakers are doing their own thing and not following any kind of plan from the administration. For instance, even though they were asked to cut down on the pork, more than $11 million worth of pet projects have been inserted into House Bill 1, the state’s budget. There’s $93,000 for the “Robert Wood Johnson award to employees for innovations in work and business;” $150,000 for the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame and Museum; $100,000 for Catholic Charities; $100,000 for the Girl Scouts; $12,000 for a projector for a summer movie program in Beauregard Parish; $15,000 for the Princess Theater of Winnsboro; and much, much more.
IGNORING THE PROBLEM
There’s still roughly five weeks left in the regular session, but it feels like officials are kicking the can down the proverbial road, hoping for either a miracle or assuming they’ll deal with the challenge later. Just last week, House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, advised against a May meeting of the Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines how much money the state actually has to spend.
Why would Tucker do this? Well, either revenues have dropped and the amount of pork projects will have to be sliced up, or revenues have increased and lawmakers will have to work to fill the holes in the budget. Or, maybe, it was a move to avoid further chaos.
But even before the session started, it seemed as if most elected officials were treating this as just another session, which it isn’t, in any shape or form. While it would have behooved Jindal to handle the deficit in a special session, it would have also been cost prohibitive. At the very least, the governor could have urged lawmakers to scale back their own proposals, but Jindal would have been held to the same standard. To be certain, Louisiana’s colleges have enough to worry about right now without the proposition of allowing concealed weapons on campuses.
CORPORATE WELFARE WINS
So far, the biggest winners from the ongoing session have not been students, the sick or even taxpayers. The golden carrots have been handed out instead to corporations. Jindal personally lit a fire under legislation to help move along the sale of a shuttered poultry processing plant in north Louisiana formerly operated by Pilgrim’s Pride. Jindal had the Legislature rewrite state incentive laws to lure Foster Farms of California into the deal, which is being supported by $50 million in state funds.
It was a top priority for the governor this session, as was a new deal for the New Orleans Saints, which is likely why Jindal released the details of both negotiations at the same time. It set up a bargaining chip for lawmakers from both north and south Louisiana, who would normally bicker over such arrangements.
But who do these initiatives really serve? How will they help the state three years from now? In times like these, when policy is dictated by national ambition and chicken plants are allowed to cut in front of the line ahead of education and other real priorities, Jindal and the Legislature would be wise to remember the old rural proverb when answering these questions. The maxim, quite wisely, reminds us that the little white speck on the top of chicken poop is chicken poop, too.