By Stephen Winham, Guest Columnist
“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”
Juvenal [circa 100 AD], Satire 10.77–81
“Bread and circuses” (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses) is metonymic for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered “palliative“… The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the commoner.
Have these words of a Roman poet, written 1900 years ago, ever been more relevant to our country and state? And, this is hardly satire. In Louisiana’s government, we still get the circuses (the just-ended special legislative session, for example), but they are not nearly so much fun as they were in the past. They also no longer provide the level of distraction our elected officials expect. Our leaders still provide the bread, too, though too many are left with the heels – and we are not always sure even they are distributed equitably.
Just as our country is clearly divided, our state is becoming increasingly partisan. Confronted with precisely the same problems, the two sides view them as if they exist in alternate realities. The factions do not seek to find common ground. They might compromise, but that is hardly the same thing.
In the most recent session of the legislature a purported compromise on how to best patch the state’s budget for the remainder of this year resulted from an agreement by the administration to accept the effect of a very questionable House Concurrent Resolution that will, if we believe the proponents, be a great “reform” and will magically free up almost a hundred million dollars in state general fund for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2017 – money, mind you, that was always there for the taking, just never captured. Sound just a little suspicious?
How does this magic work and how does it differ from past gimmicks, you might well ask? Well, unlike some of those, it really does free up general fund, but it also cuts other constitutional and statutorily dedicated funding, notably including the Transportation Trust Fund. The Transportation Trust Fund has already been criticized for not being used more on roads and bridges desperately in need of repair – and now we are going to take another $15-$18 million of it to pay part of our General Obligation (not highway) Debt service? And, lest we forget, TTF funds match Federal Highway funds so the potential impact is greater than the amount diverted. Is this your concept of “reform?” It certainly is not mine.
The Bond Security and Redemption Fund ensures our general obligation debt service will always get paid first. It is the subject of HCR1 of the special session. Money constantly (and somewhat theoretically) flows through it on the way to the general fund from which we have typically paid general debt service. I consider the fund a practical fiction because it would only have actual effect if somebody ever pressed the “stop” button and froze it to draw the necessary amount for debt service. However, its existence enhances our bond ratings. There is a legitimate concern that messing with it in any way can jeopardize our ratings, not because it places the payment of debt service in danger, but simply because we have started messing with it at all. The fact we have recently had to borrow short-term to meet current obligations is further evidence we should leave the BSRF alone. To the extent confidence in our fiscal status is eroded, and our ratings decline, we must pay more to service our debt.
House Speaker Barras, the author of the concurrent resolution that directs this miracle reform is a banker. He certainly knows all these things. Let’s put the best face possible on the resolution and assume he wanted its passage to ensure the special session did not close with absolutely no action toward addressing our long-range problems – which would have been the case in its absence. This proposal had been made before and rejected by the administration for the reasons above and others – reasons I consider valid.
Could using the resolution as a bargaining chip have been a power play more than anything else? Barras was not JBE’s pick for Speaker of the House. The Republicans in the house are flexing their muscles in a faint attempt to emulate the partisanship of their national counterparts. Did they rally around the speaker to get in JBE’s face with this one? Could this distraction have also been the center ring performance in this special session – a small act in a small session with bigger acts like those in past sessions to come when the Greatest Show on Earth returns to Baton Rouge in April?
Let’s face it. Nobody has done anything that comes close to solving our overall budget problem. Our roads and other infrastructure are crumbling, our state services are becoming increasingly mediocre and, in the case of some life-and-death situations, dangerously ineffective. Worse, most everybody seems to be ignoring the fact that we face a $1.2 billion (gee, why does that number sound so familiar?) gap in Fiscal Year 2018-2019 when the temporary sales taxes used to bandage the budget the last time we hit the wall expire.
The latest of literally dozens of past blue ribbon groups tasked with providing options for fixing the state’s fiscal problems, the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy, issued its final report, to little fanfare, on January 27, 2017. Some of the best minds in our state participated in this study and it provides solid recommendations based on current information. Our leaders need only choose among them. I commend its reading to you. Why has this report not become part of the circus yet – Is it too dull to have entertainment value? Do our leaders believe we cannot be convinced by (or even understand) facts? Do they believe illusion, misdirection and confusion are always better and that we are easily fooled?
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne was a key participant in the task force. When the Fiscal Year 2017-2018 executive budget was presented, the governor and Commissioner Dardenne declined to say what they might ultimately suggest as the solution to our problem. They also said, as they have in the past, this is not the budget they want to see implemented. Well, if it isn’t, what is?
If the cuts presented in the governor’s proposed budget, most notably to TOPS, are not realistic – not something we can all live with – what cuts are? We don’t know because, despite protestations to the contrary, we have not seen a truly honest budget in many years – one that says, “Okay, Louisiana, you don’t want to pay more taxes, here are the things we are going to permanently cut and we are going to stand behind them to the end.” This is very different from: “Well, shucks, here’s some things that will balance the budget, but we don’t want to do them and neither do you, so what have you got to offer as an alternative?”
Representative John Schroder has taken the position the governor should present a realistic plan he is willing to stand behind to provide the legislature with a realistic starting point. The governor seems to be saying no such plan exists. So, if the governor doesn’t have a plan and neither does the legislature, where does that leave us?
Our governor has greater control over the budget than is the case in some other states. Representative Schroder has a point, but the simple fact is the legislature, not the governor, holds the power of appropriation and many, including me, consider it to be its greatest power. The governor can recommend things all day long, but he cannot enact appropriations or taxes.
Speaking of taxes, why are so many of our citizens convinced they already pay too much in taxes for what they get from the government? Look no further than LouisianaVoice, The ADVOCATE, nola.com, almost any television or radio station and what do you read, see, and hear?
Every day we are bombarded with tales of waste, corruption, theft, etc. in our state departments. Are you going to tell me nothing can be done about this? Am I to believe lightening would strike JBE and our other elected officials dead if they dared expect the people they appoint to run these programs as effectively and efficiently as possible and to demand accountability for their failures? I’m not talking about the simple act of firing those who are doing a poor job. That doesn’t accomplish anything if the replacement continues the practices of the predecessor. I am talking about expecting officials to have integrity and to know enough about the operations of their departments to stop these things from happening in the first place.
I honestly and truly believe people are willing to pay for things from which they see benefits and that they believe are providing maximum value – the marketplace proves this. Every effort must be made to instill confidence in our government’s ability to manage our resources in the best way possible. Sure, its goals are different – government exists to provide services, not make a profit, but that is no excuse for not performing to the highest standards possible.
I don’t know about you, but I am finding the circus less than entertaining and I can provide my own bread for the most part. Others have given up on the circus, but need help from its owners. It is past time those owners accept their responsibilities – and it is up to us to lean on them to do so every chance we get – beginning right now and continuing in earnest during the next legislative session. Our leaders need to all look at what is happening to the real Ringling Brothers Circus and realize it could happen to them – and, much worse, to us.