By STEPHEN WINHAM
The long-awaited Jindal administration proposal to balance the Fiscal Year 2013-2014 budget was released yesterday (February 22). The most surprising thing about it was its almost complete lack of surprises. Once again, we were presented with a budget that uses one-time money, contingencies, and outright conjecture, along with increased college tuition, to create the illusion of a balanced budget that does little or no harm.
Perhaps the most surprising and indefensible part of the presentation was revealed in Melinda Deslatte’s AP wire story late yesterday. Deslatte reported that commissioner of administration Kristy Nichols defended the use of patchwork funding in the budget on the grounds that not doing so would result in “needless reductions to critical services.” Think long and hard about what that means.
The governor is happy to tout his refusal to increase state taxes. He is also happy to talk about his successes in reducing the size of government and refusal of additional federal support. He is very direct, if not necessarily consistent, when it comes to holding the line on these things. Although there is no second half to his current plan to eliminate income and franchise taxes, he assures us that, if he actually ever presents a proposal for the other side of the equation, it will be income neutral.
If Nichols’ testimony is to be taken at face value, we can only assume it is not possible to maintain critical services with our current level of recurring revenue. So far, the governor’s approach to reducing state government has been to gradually strangle it through continued submission of unrealistic budgets intended to give the impression everything is okay. The legislators adopt these proposals and congratulate themselves on another successful year.
In reality, everything is not okay. The governor knows it. Ms. Nichols knows it. The legislators interested enough to pay attention know it. As long as projected revenues from reliable, stable sources do not equal projected necessary expenditures, things will NEVER be okay. Governor Jindal has not submitted, nor has the legislature adopted, such a budget during his entire administration. This is proven by the mid-year cuts that are always necessary in adopted yearly budgets and the never-ending projections of deep holes for every future year.
Governor Jindal has been quoted repeatedly in the national press saying we all have to learn to live within our means. If he really believes this, why does he not present budgets that allow the state of Louisiana to do so? I think Ms. Nichols has made the answer quite clear – because we simply cannot live the way we want to within our present means. Presenting a truly balanced budget would result in an outcry from even the staunchest fiscal conservatives who would immediately begin to cry, “Why don’t you cut the fat, not the meat?” They would never accept there isn’t enough fat left to leave the meat alone.
A group of legislative “Fiscal Hawks” [a term coined by respected blogger C. B. Forgotston] has attempted to solve the perennial problem of unbalanced budgets by forcing the governor and the legislature to simply comply with the clear spirit of the state’s existing constitution and statutes as they apply to the budget.
Regardless of how complicated some might attempt to make these laws, their intent is plain common sense: we should do our best to project recurring revenues and adopt a budget that balances expenditures with them. If one-time revenues are used, they should only be used for clearly one-time expenses because doing otherwise automatically creates holes in future budgets. We shouldn’t budget on contingencies and conjecture because if the revenues fail to come in we will have significant trouble paying for or cutting the services they were supposed to fund.
Could anything be simpler or make more sense? If the governor and the legislature know we cannot live within our means why don’t they do something as simple as following the intent of existing law? The governor doesn’t propose budgets doing so because, like Ms. Nichols, he knows it is impossible without making unpopular cuts to essential services. Cutting taxes is popular. Cutting needed services, or raising taxes, is not.
The legislature doesn’t demand we live within our means for the same reason and also because of their collective belief that their constituents are only interested in the extent to which they bring home the bacon. Legislators believe not bringing home the bacon equals not getting re-elected. Although they already have a history of funding local services to the detriment of state programs in the past, we have now reached a critical stage.
If essential state services are cut at the same time purely local projects are funded, there might actually be a backlash for individual legislators. They might learn that their constituents benefit from the critical state services to which Ms. Nichols refers and actually care about the future of the state in which they live as much as their local neighborhoods.
Why can’t our state’s leaders just be honest about this and do the right thing? Understanding and dealing effectively with the budget dilemma requires a level of knowledge that can only be gained through fairly intimate involvement with, and knowledge of, the state’s budget and fiscal status. It is unreasonable to expect individual citizens to educate themselves at the detailed level necessary to make the right decisions about how to fix things even if they could. When we elect our governor and legislators, we do so with the reasonable expectation that they can and will take care of these things in our behalf.
It is certainly easy to understand why it is difficult to make hard cuts when cash is, or even may be, available to avoid them. But willfully allowing gross fiscal instability to continue indefinitely is a violation of the public trust. It serves no one well and doesn’t even allow the ability to isolate inefficiencies and make rational cuts in spending where they actually need to be made.
Only by facing reality can our state’s leaders make the necessary changes to move us forward. The administration has admitted the current gap cannot be closed by cuts alone. We should support those legislators and other elected officials who have the courage and conviction to make responsible decisions about our future even if they include additional taxes.
(Stephen Winham is the retired Louisiana State Budget Director)