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Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

It’s a plaintiff attorney’s and a legislator’s nightmare.

As an illustration of just how bad the state’s fiscal condition really is, one need only examine the 40 court judgments stemming from litigation against the state in 2016 that have yet to be paid.

As former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill once said, all politics is local and when a constituent wins or settles a lawsuit against the state, that person’s legislator is usually prompt in filing a bill in the House to appropriate funds for pay the judgment. That’s important to legislators. The state, after all, has denied classified employees pay raises for the better part of a decade but never missed paying a judgment other than the Jean Boudreaux case—until now.

It’s also a good indication of just how dire the state’s fiscal condition really is.

In all judgments of road hazard cases—cases involving auto accidents where the state is found at fault for inadequate signage, poor road maintenance or improper construction—as well as certain other claims like general liability or medical malpractice, funds must be appropriated via a bill submitted by a legislator.

In past years, with the exception of one major judgment, that has not been a problem. Only the $91.8 million class action judgment resulting from the 1983 flood in Tangipahoa Parish was never paid. In that case, lead plaintiff Jean Boudreaux claimed that construction of Interstate 12 impeded the natural flow of the Tangipahoa River, causing unnecessary flooding of homes and businesses north of I-12.

But in 2016, Rep. Steve Pugh of Ponchatoula submitted a bill to appropriate funds to pay the judgment. He did the same in 2017. It still remains unpaid, along with 36 other judgments totaling another $9.5 million for which bills were approved.

That puts the overall total judgments, including the 34-year-old Boudreaux case at more than $101 million.

And that doesn’t count the cost of attorney fees, expert fees, or court reporter fees, amounts practically impossible to calculate without reviewing the complete payment files on a case-by-case basis.

Twenty-four of the cases had two or more plaintiffs who were awarded money.

In 19 cases, awards were for $100,000 or more and three of those were for more than a million dollars—if indeed the money is ever paid.

In the meantime, judicial interest is still running on some of those judgments, which could run the tab even higher.

A list of those who were either awarded or settled cases in excess of $100,000 that remain unpaid and their parishes include:

  • Michael and Mary Aleshire, Calcasieu Parish: $104,380.82;
  • Kayla Schexnayder and Emily Legarde, Assumption Parish: $1,068,004;
  • Debra Stutes, Calcasieu Parish: $850,000;
  • Peter Mueller, Orleans Parish: $245,000;
  • Steve Brengettsy and Elro McQuarter, West Feliciana: $205,000;
  • Jeffrey and Lillie Christopher, Iberville Parish: $175,000;
  • Donald Ragusa and Tina Cristina, East Baton Rouge: $175,000;
  • Stephanie Landry and Tommie Varnado, Orleans Parish: $135,000;
  • Jennie Lynn Badeaux Russ, Lafourche Parish: $1.5 million;
  • Adermon and Gloria Rideaux and Brian Brooks, Calcasieu Parish: $1.375 million;
  • Theresa Melancon and DHH Medicaid Program, Rapides Parish: $750,000;
  • Rebecca, Kevin and Cheryl Cole and Travelers Insurance, East Baton Rouge: $400,000;
  • Samuel and Susan Weaver, Lafourche Parish: $240,000;
  • Henry Clark, Denise Ramsey and Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, Lafayette Parish: $326,000;
  • Anya and Abigail Falcon and Landon and Nikki Hanchett, Iberville Parish, $946,732.53;
  • Adam Moore and James Herrington, East Carroll Parish: $150,000;
  • Traci Newsom, Gerald Blow, DHH Medicaid and Ameril-Health Caritas, Tangipahoa Parish: $150,000;
  • Michael Villavaso, Orleans Parish: $443,352.51.

Lawsuits against all state agencies are handled by the Office of Risk Management (ORM), which Bobby Jindal privatized in 2011 in order to save the state money.

The privatization didn’t realize the savings Jindal had anticipated but now, at least, it looks as though the Division of Administration has found another way to save money on litigation costs:

Don’t pay the judgments.

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When I was a student at Louisiana Tech, I worked part time as a disc jockey at KRUS radio station in Ruston. Occasionally, I would have a “Golden Oldies Show,” during which I played only old rock & roll records.

I saw a story in the Washington Post recently that conjured up memories of old news stories and at the same time made me wonder if the Republicans in Congress were paying attention all those years.

The story, headlined, “GOP abandons any pretense of fiscal responsibility,” noted that the Republican Party has essentially abandoned its platform of fiscal restraint, “pivoting sharply in a way that could add trillions of dollars in federal debt over the next decade.”

https://politicalwire.com/2017/10/07/gop-abandons-pretense-fiscal-responsibility/

So, doing the minimum research, it was almost too easy to find stories that reveal that the tax cuts proposed by Trump would further widen the gap between wealthy and low-income Americans. http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/42177-trump-s-proposed-tax-cuts-would-further-widen-the-gap-between-rich-and-poor

The Trump-led (and that’s a very loose term) Republican tax reform would cut taxes for the very rich and place the burden on the rest of us.

In 1970, the bottom 50 percent of U.S. wage earners averaged $16,000 a year in today’s dollars. In 2014, that figure had skyrocketed to $16,200.

The top 1 percent, meanwhile, saw their average income increase from an average of $400,000 a year to $1.3 million during the same time period, hardly enough to keep the lawn watered in the Hamptons.

Some might dismiss these sources as typical liberal media, but the conservative U.S. News & World Report seems to agree with their assessments.

More than two years ago, on May 20, 2015, the magazine ran a story headed simply as THE PARTY of RED INK.

That story did cite the $1.2 billion budget deficit that Democratic Gov. Martin O’Mally left for his Republican successor, but for the rest of its story, USN&WR hammered one Republican state governor after another. Those included our own wunderkind Bobby Jindal (a $1.6 billon deficit), Chris Christie (a staggering $7.35 billion structural budget deficit), Scott Walker of Wisconsin ($2.2 billion deficit), and Sam Brownback of Kansas ($1 billion shortfall).

Their collective answer to these budgetary nightmares? Cut taxes.

But along with tax cuts go cuts to services.

Back when I was a student at Tech—and given, that’s been a long time; Terry Bradshaw was emerging as a top draft pick back then—my tuition was $99. Today, my grandson, a computer engineering student at Tech, is forking over $9,000 per quarter to stay enrolled.

In Louisiana, cuts to higher education, public education, referral services to the mentally ill, services to children with disabilities, foster child services, and other cuts have had devastating results. Yet, the Republicans go merrily along with their vision of fiscal reform.

Jindal’s obsession with tax cutting, service cutting, and privatization was such a dismal failure that Newsweek on June 1, 3015, published a story headlined HOW BOBBY JINDAL BROKE the LOUISIANA ECONOMY.

But a March 26, 2015, story was even more revealing. That story, admittedly by a partisan Democrat writer, nevertheless cited a report by an outfit called WalletHub, a commercial personal financial web site that rated all 50 states on their dependence on federal dollars to prop up their respective economies.

The REPORT basically said that red states, America’s stalwarts of fiscal responsibility, suck more money out of the federal treasury than any others and that some of the poorest states, of which Louisiana is certainly one, depend on federal funding for 30 to 42 percent of their total revenue.

Louisiana depends on federal dollars for 42.2 percent of its budget That just happens to be the highest percentage in the nation. Mississippi is right behind, drawing 42.1 percent of its budget from the feds, according to a report released in May of this year. http://www.governing.com/topics/finance/gov-state-budgets-federal-funding-2015-2018-trump.html

Yet, who screams the loudest to get the federal government out of our lives? Well, that would be the Republicans, who control both Louisiana and Mississippi.

And yet, there they go again, to paraphrase Mr. Reagan. The Republicans in Congress are pushing that same agenda of tax cuts for the rich, cuts to services, increased military spending, heavier tax burdens on the middle class, and economic stagnation for what now, something like the 35th straight year?

And yes, I am keenly aware that some of those years included the administrations of Clinton and Obama and that some of those years Democrats controlled Congress. But that only goes to prove my oft-repeated point that there is little difference in the two parties when Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the NRA, and defense contractors exert such a heavy influence on the national agenda.

But with the Republicans, it’s not so much a political philosophy as it is an obsession, a mindset.

They adhere to the Laffer Curve at all costs. That’s the theory advanced by one Arthur Laffer, who says that tax cuts pay for themselves by stimulating economic growth.

Anyone seen any economic growth around these parts in the last couple of decades or so? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

The Laffer Curve might be appropriately named were it not such a cruel joke.

 

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Jacob Colby Perry has been CRAPPed (Crazed Reaction Against Public Participation), BLAPPed, (Blowhard Letter Against Public Participation) and SLAPPed (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) as reward for his efforts to obtain answers from the Welsh City Council, particularly as those answers pertain to expenditures of the Welsh Police Department which consistently (as in every month) exceeds the department’s budget.

And he’s a member of the town’s board of aldermen, whose job it is to oversee the town’s various budgets, including that of the Police Department.

Welsh, for those who may not know, is a small town situated on I-10 in the middle of Jefferson Davis Parish. Jeff Davis Parish is located between Acadia Parish on the east and Calcasieu Parish on the west and sits immediately north of the easternmost part of Cameron Parish.

The town has 3,200 residents.

And 18 police cars (one for every officer to take home from work). The budget for those patrol cars, which are not all purchased in the same fiscal year, is $169,000.

Other line items in the police department’s budget include:

  • Police Chief—$100,990 (of which amount, $76,120 is for the Chief Marcus Crochet: $55,000 salary, $4,207.50 in Social Security payments, and $16,912.50 for his retirement);
  • Police Patrol—$593,077 ($32,948 per vehicle);
  • Police Training—$8,000;
  • Police Communications—$295,342 ($16,400 per officer);
  • Police Station and Buildings—$52,300.

BUDGET

All that for a town of 3,200.

From June 2016 through February 2017, the monthly expenditures and monthly overages (in parenthesis) for the police department were:

  • June 2016: $105,681.35 ($24,345.77);
  • July 2016: $79,595.23 ($1,840.35);
  • August 2016: $71,348.81 ($10,085.77);
  • September 2016: $132,857.05 ($51,421.47);
  • October 2016: $78,881.21; ($2,554.37);
  • November 2016: $108,732.82 ($24,297.24);
  • December 2016: $77,098.58 ($4,337.00)
  • January 2017: $79,945.66 ($1,489.92);
  • February 2017: $84,139.83 ($2,704.25)

TOTAL: $818,280.54 ($82,360.32).

That’s a nine-month average expenditure of $90,920.06, or an average monthly overage of $9,484.48.

Projected out for the entire fiscal year, the police department’s expenditures would be $1,091,040.72 or a projected fiscal year overage of $113,813.72.

OVERAGES

Did I mention that Welsh is a town of 3,200 living souls?

It’s no wonder then, that Alderman Jacob Colby Perry, a mere stripling of 24, along with a couple of other aldermen have questions about Crochet’s budget, particular when it was learned that funds generated from traffic enforcement on I-10 is deposited in an account named “Welsh Police Department Equipment & Maintenance.”

An attorney general opinion directed to Crochet and dated Dec. 18, 2015, makes it clear that “a police department is not permitted to establish a separate fund for the deposit of money generated from traffic tickets.” Louisiana R.S. 33:422 “requires that the fines collected from tickets issued by a police officer in a Lawrason Act municipality (which Welsh is) be deposited into the municipal treasury and, thus, within the control of the mayor, clerk, and treasurer.”

The balance in that account is more than $178,000. That’s over and above all the line items in the police department’s budget cited earlier. And he never tapped those funds to cover his overages, instead calling on the board of aldermen to cover his expenditures.

“The mayor (Carolyn Louviere), along with her staff and the town clerk, knew months prior that the chief of police was over-budget and would continue to exceed his budget,” Perry said. “They did nothing.”

Instead, she and the board acquiesced to Crochet’s request of a 37.5 percent increase in his base pay (from $40,000 to $55,000) and his total compensation, including salary and benefits, of $76,120.

SALARIES

Perry said that after he and three other aldermen addressed the matter of the police department’s budget in a meeting at which Crochet was not in attendance, “the town clerk and the mayor immediately followed up by informing the chief of police. In the next meeting, he (Crochet) entered with an entourage consisting of at least 10 police officers in uniform, a neighboring municipality’s chief of police and financial adviser, and his wife. We were yelled at and intimidated.

Perry said he felt Crochet’s demeanor at that meeting may have served its purpose in that the board of aldermen amended the police department budget by $253,000, pushing the department’s budget to more than $1.2 million. “The Town of Welsh is in disrepair,” Perry said.

For his trouble, several things have happened with Perry, none of them good:

  • A recall petition was started against him;
  • Postcards were mailed to Welsh residents that depicted Perry and Andrea King, also a member of the Board of Aldermen, as “terrorists” (See story HERE) and that Perry violated campaign finance laws by failing to report income from a strip club in Texas of which he was said to be part owner and which allegedly was under federal investigation for prostitution, money laundering and drug trafficking (See story HERE);
  • He was removed from the Town of Welsh’s FACEBOOK page;
  • He has been named defendant in not one, not two, not three, but four separate SLAPP lawsuits.

Those filing the suits were Mayor Louviere; her daughter, Nancy Cormier; her son, William Johnson, and, of course, Police Chief Crochet. All four SLAPPs were filed by the same attorney, one Ronald C. Richard of Lake Charles. Can you say collusion?

Each of the nuisance suits say essentially the same thing: that Perry besmirched the reputations of her honor the mayor, both of her children, and the bastion of law enforcement and fiscal prudence, Chief Crochet.

The reason I call them nuisance suits is because Perry, as a member of the board of aldermen, is immune from libel and slander suits under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.

As the crowning touch, the recall petition was initiated while Perry was in Japan on military orders, serving his annual two-week training.

But the plaintiffs, while trying to shut Perry up, have their own dirty laundry.

It has already been shown that the police chief is not the most fiscally responsible person to be handling a million-dollar budget. Eighteen police cars in a town of 3,200? Seriously? More than $76,000 in salary and benefits—not counting the additional $6,000 he receives in state supplemental pay? Consistently busting his department’s budget? Keeping traffic fine income in a separate account when it should go in to the town’s general fund?

And Mayor Louviere, who inexplicably wants to build a new city hall when the town is flat broke, is currently under investigation by the Louisiana Board of Ethics, according to the Lake Charles American Press AMERICAN PRESS. She also wants to shut down a bar that just happens to be adjacent to a business owned by her son.

And her son, William Joseph Johnson, who Perry says used his mother’s office in an attempt to shut the bar down, has a story all his own.

Johnson, back in 2011, was sentenced in federal court to serve as the guest of the federal prison system for charges related to a $77,000 fraud he perpetrated against a hotel chain in Natchitoches between October 2006 and January 2007. And that wasn’t his first time to run afoul of the law.

At the time of his sentencing for the Louisiana theft, he was still wanted on several felony charges in Spokane County, Washington, after being accused of being hired as financial controller for the Davenport Hotel of Spokane under a stolen identity, giving him access to the hotel’s financial operations and then stealing from the hotel.

The only thing preventing Spokane authorities from extraditing him to Washington, Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Shane Smith said, was that “we just don’t have the funds to bring him back.” The Spokane Review, quoting court documents, said, “Police believe Johnson is a longtime con artist who has swindled expensive hotels across the country.” (Click HERE for that story.)

“William Joseph Johnson, Jr. remains on federal probation,” Perry said. “He has yet to pay back all of the restitution that he owes.

In his lawsuit against Perry, Johnson says he “has a long-standing positive reputation in his community and parish” and that he (Johnson) suffered “harm to reputation (and) mental anguish.”

So we have Perry, a student at McNeese State University, being BLAPPed (Blowhard Letters Against Public Participation) with the postcard campaign; CRAPPed (Crazed Retaliation Against Public Participation) with Crochet’s appearance with 10 uniformed officers to berate Perry at a board of aldermen meeting and an incident in which Perry said Johnson confronted him in an aggressive manner following a board meeting, and SLAPPed (Strategic Legal Action Against Public Participation) with the four lawsuits.

All this in a town of 3,200.

Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill had no idea how accurate he was when he said, “All politics is local.”

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High school civics classes taught us about the checks and balances of government. You know, the three branches: the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative, each of which is supposed to serve as a safeguard against abuses by the other two.

In addition to those, at the state level at least, we have the Office of Inspector General, the Legislative Auditor, and the Attorney General—except that the Constitutional Convention of 1974, thanks to the muscle-flexing of the district attorneys, hamstrung the attorney general from intruding on the turf of the DA’s unless specifically invited to do so.

Another little-known fact about the attorney general is that the office is set up to defend, not prosecute, state agency heads who run afoul of the law. That’s why you see enormous expenditures on the part of the Louisiana Office of Risk Management when an agency head is sued for, say, failure to provide public records when requested or even when an agency head is accused of criminal wrongdoing. ORM, the state’s insurance agency, pays defense attorneys who are contracted by the attorney general’s office. Thus, as long as someone else is footing the bill, the incentive is for the public official to duke it out in court.

So, with all these safeguards in place, how is it that a quiet amendment was sneaked through the legislature 11 years ago that gives legislators control over the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars most folks, including the Legislative Auditor’s Office and those whose job it was to draft bill amendments, didn’t even know existed?

Well, we gave you the answer when we said “sneaked.” These types of bills are done very quietly, with zero fanfare but with laser-like efficiency.

Here’s the wording of that amendment:

R.S. 24:39(D) is amended and reenacted to expand the uses of the monies in the Legislative Capitol Technology Enhancement Fund to include supporting all other operations and activities consistent with the authorized mission of the Legislative Budgetary Control Council. This provision is effective June 7, 2012.” (Emphasis ours.)

The Legislative Capitol WHAT fund?!!!?

Legislative Budgetary Control Council?!!?

What is the Legislative Capitol Technology Enhancement Fund and who are the members of this Legislative Budgetary Control Council?

The members of the Budgetary Control Council are:

  • Sen. John Alario, Co-chair;
  • Rep. Taylor Barras, Co-chair;
  • Rep. Michael Danahay;
  • Rep. Cameron Henry;
  • Rep. Walt Leger, III;
  • Rep. Gregory Miller;
  • Sen. Eric LaFleur;
  • Sen. Gerald Long;
  • Sen. Karen Carter Peterson;
  • Sen. Gregory Tarver.

We also found the 2008 act that created the Legislative Capitol Technology Enhancement Fund which gives legislators a helluva lot of discretion over funds no one knew existed—especially with the slipping in of that 2012 amendment that gives them carte blanche control over a helluva lot of money.

Here is the wording of R.S. 24:39, including the key Section D:

RS 24:39     

Legislative Capitol Technology Enhancement Fund

  1.  There is hereby created in the state treasury, as a special fund, the Legislative Capitol Technology Enhancement Fund, hereinafter referred to as the “fund”.
  2.  The state treasurer is hereby authorized and directed to transfer ten million dollars from the state general fund to the Legislative Capitol Technology Enhancement Fund on June 30, 2008, and on July first of each fiscal year beginning July 1, 2009.  The legislature may appropriate, allocate, or transfer additional monies to the fund if it deems necessary to accomplish the purposes of the fund.
  3.  Monies in the fund shall be invested by the treasurer in the same manner as monies in the state general fund and any interest earned on the investment of monies in the fund shall be credited to the fund.  All unexpended and unencumbered monies in the fund at the end of the fiscal year shall remain in the fund.
  4.  Monies in the fund shall be available for appropriation to and use by the Legislative Budgetary Control Council, hereinafter referred to as the “council”.  Such appropriations shall be used by the council solely to fund construction, improvements, maintenance, renovations, repairs, and necessary additions to the House chamber, Senate chamber, legislative committee meeting rooms, and other legislative rooms, offices, and areas in the Capitol Complex for audio-visual upgrades and technology enhancements and for supporting all other operations and activities consistent with the authorized mission of the council.

In 2010, Clifford Williams, who said he worked as a legislative staffer in the Legislature’s Amendment Room where his job was to draft amendments to bills, said, “I was not even aware of this provision until I was asked to do an amendment involving this provision one day.”

He said a legislator came in that day and requested the transfer of $5 million to some other long-forgotten project. “To tell the truth, I not only don’t remember what he said he wanted the money for, I don’t even recall the legislator’s name. But this was the first time I ever heard of this fund, which is nothing more than a slush fund for legislators’ use with virtually no oversight. It’s money that exists outside the regular legislative budget,” he said.

In 2012, just four short years after the initial $10 million appropriation, the fund had a balance of more than $32 million. Here is an analysis of the fund for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012:

FINANCIAL HIGHLIGHTS

The Council’s net assets increased by $20,161,763. This resulted primarily from significant increases in appropriations in the current year for the Legislative Capitol Technology Enhancement Fund and the State Capitol HVAC Replacement and Renovations project, as well as decreases in expenditures due to the completion of various projects.

 The general revenues of the Council were $32,749,917, which is an increase of $16,741,476 from the prior year. The significant increase is a result of additional appropriations received in the current year for projects and renovations. Prior year revenues did not include appropriations for the Technology Enhancement projects and Capitol renovations.

The total expenditures/expenses of the Council were $11,577,183, which is a decrease of $7,173,036 from the prior year. The decrease is a result of capital outlay expenditures for the Technology Enhancement projects and Capitol renovations decreasing due to project completions in the current year.

The other financing uses of the Council were $1,010,971, which is an increase of $283,007.

So, as the state struggles with budgetary shortfalls, looming deficits and near-certain budget cutbacks, it’s comforting to know the Legislature has solidified its financial future through legislation sneaked through the process with such skill that even Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera was caught unaware Monday when asked about the fund.

Just another way, folks, that your legislators continue to look out for their own interests (parties, fine dining, campaign cash) while leaving you and your concerns choking in the dust.

As the late C.B. Forgotston would’ve said, you can’t make this stuff up.

And the party goes on.

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By Stephen Winham

Guest Columnist

The 2017-18 budget was enacted in a ball of confusion that allowed an escalation of the blame game.  There was less back-slapping than usual when the latest unnecessary special legislative session ended, but perhaps more back-stabbing.

I heard Gov. Edwards on the radio blaming the legislature for not using recommendations of the latest blue-ribbon committee (Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy) to formulate a plan for resolving the “fiscal cliff” facing us in 2018-19?  I was surprised nobody asked him, “Well, governor, why didn’t you?”

Surely the governor does not believe we have already forgotten that the centerpiece of his tax reform proposal was the previously unheard of and dead on arrival Commercial Activity Tax?  While his proposal did incorporate some of the task force proposals, his brand-new Commercial Activity Tax constituted $832 million of his $1.3 billion proposal.

When Gov. Edwards first talked about the Commercial Activity Tax I thought, “Oh, no, here we go again with another sham like the one Jindal put up in his his one and only stab at tax reform in 2013.”  Then, when Gov. Edwards put his CAT proposal in writing and balanced it with things that made sense, I thought he was proposing something he seriously thought would work.  By the time the CAT was introduced, however, it had already been severely watered down and it was subsequently amended beyond worth before the whole package was withdrawn – In other words, just like Jindal’s ersatz proposal, it never got out of the starting gate – And I came full circle to my original take on it.

Then Representatives Cameron Henry and Lance Harris began the drumbeat we have heard now for many years – “We don’t have a revenue problem.  We have a spending problem.”  That premise was picked up by legislators representing constituencies that believe it to be true (in the absence of a credible contrary argument), and the focus shifted to cuts.  Or did it?

Most of the things everybody considered critical, like full TOPS funding, higher education, and critical needs at corrections seem to have been funded, based on press reports.  State employees were even given a modest pay increase.  Yet no taxes were raised.  Since the Governor proposed an Executive Budget that left $440 million in what he considered priority needs unfunded, how is this possible?  I am still trying to find the answer to that seemingly simple question.

As you already know, state law requires the governor to submit an Executive Budget proposal balanced to the official forecast of revenues.  The legislature is also required to pass a balanced budget.  Although the original appropriations bills are based on the governor’s proposal, the legislature is under no obligation to pass a budget that matches what the governor has proposed.  In fact, there are states where the legislature pretty much ignores the governor’s proposal and starts and ends with its own ideas.  We must never forget that the legislature holds the power to appropriate and enact the budget, not the governor.  Our governor has veto power, including the power to veto line-items, but he does not make the law.  He is responsible for administering the enacted budget in accordance with law.

So, who really is to blame for the abysmal mess in which we find ourselves: the governor, or the legislature?  That’s an easy one – both.

Although the process has become significantly perverted, there should be only one way to balance our state budget on a continuing basis – match projected recurring revenue with projected expenses.  It is possible to do this and to do it in a way that is clearly understood.  At the end of the budget process we deserve a budget we can understand and live with – I am unconvinced we have either.

Governor Edwards did present a balanced budget proposal.  But was it clear and honest in its portrayal of our needs?  The Executive Budget presentation showed a general fund (tax-funded) need of $9.910 billion versus and official revenue forecast of $9.470 billion, leaving a gap of $440 million in unfunded needs.  All constitutional requirements were fully funded.  Here’s how the Governor said he balanced the budget:

  • Carrying forward most of the cuts made in FY 2016-2007 ($120 million)
  • Cutting general fund to the Department of Health ($184 million)
  • Across-the-board cuts in general fund of 2% ($48 million)
  • No funding for inflation
  • Funding TOPS at 70%
  • No funding of deferred maintenance and other infrastructure

If we got additional revenue, the governor proposed restoration of the cuts in hospitals and the across-the-board cuts.  In addition, he recommended full funding of TOPS, pay raises for state employees, technology enhancements, additional funding for prison contracts, match funding for DOTD, a 2.75% increase in the MFP for elementary and secondary schools, and other enhancements.

Fast forward to the budget ultimately enacted last week.  No additional revenue was raised.  TOPS is fully funded.  State employee pay raises are there.  Nobody is publicly claiming devastating cuts have occurred and the governor says he is happy with the budget.  We mullets (as the late C. B. Forgotston called us) are left to scratch our heads over how this is possible.  How is it possible to go from needing $440 million in additional money for a minimally adequate budget to needing ZERO while making most people happy?  What got cut?  How will the cuts affect people and businesses?  Until somebody answers these questions, we mullet mushrooms are left in the dark – and that is apparently where our “leaders” would as soon we stay.

We deserve better – all of us.  None of the following are unrealistic demands.  We need to start making them of our elected officials:

  1. An Executive Budget proposal that the governor truly believes in and is willing to fully defend. If, for example, 100% funding TOPS is not a high enough priority to be included in his base recommendations, then he should stand behind continuing the FY2016-2017 level of 70%.
  2. An Executive Budget proposal and an enacted budget that avoid across-the-board cuts. Across-the-board cuts only make sense if all programs are of equal value.  That is certainly not the case.  Further, after successive years of across-the-board cuts, the result can only be greater mediocrity and ineffectiveness.
  3. An Executive Budget proposal and enacted budget that make clear, concrete cuts anybody can understand with clear explanations of exactly how services are going to be reduced or eliminated.
  4. A progressive tax system that matches recurring revenue with recurring needs after all cuts possible have been made.
  5. Elected officials willing to hold their appointees to the highest standards possible with zero tolerance for the waste and abuses reported almost daily.
  6. Elected officials willing to put partisan politics aside in furtherance of the greater good.

Governor Bobby Jindal portrayed himself on the national stage as a budget-cutter par excellence.  If he was, why did he rely on tricks to “balance” annual budgets and leave Governor Edwards (and us) with a huge budget hole?

Why has Gov. Edwards not yet offered up a balanced budget he is willing to stand behind?  Why has the legislature not enacted a budget that makes sense and is sustainable in the future?  Is it a lack of courage, or is it an unwillingness to face reality?  It must be both, plus the partisanship that has recently made a political game of everything.

The governor and the legislature have competent staffs who have clearly defined our problems for many years.  A series of blue-ribbon panels and well-paid private contractors have studied the problem and recommended solutions for decades.  It is difficult to find evidence either individuals or businesses are overtaxed in Louisiana.  It is very easy to find low rankings of our state on infrastructure and quality of life issues important to both individuals and businesses.

We are mere pawns in the blame game – but we don’t have to be.   Let’s let our elected officials know we will no longer accept being held hostage to an incompetent and unresponsive government.  We want solutions, not the cop-outs and excuses we have been getting for way too many years.

Stephen Winham spent 21 years in the Louisiana State Budget Office, the last 12 as Director. He lives in St. Francisville.

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