Just a few months ago, more than 1 million wildebeests were seen leaving the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania and heading north to Kenya. The hulky, horned creatures had greedily consumed all of the grass and water in the plain and were now in search of more. The great migration happens every year, and the wildebeests will eventually make their way back to Tanzania, but not before depleting their Kenyan resources first. Between the two points, the herd must pass through the temperamental Mara River, where at least 1,000 wildebeests die during each crossing. Some are attacked by hyenas while coming out of the water. Many drown. Others are eaten by crocodiles.
In a few months’ time, Louisiana lawmakers will make their own pilgrimage to Baton Rouge — possibly for a special session in January, but definitely for the annual session in April. It’s as predictable as the wildebeest migration. Lawmakers, however, will arrive at their destination to find grazing opportunities as barren as the Serengeti Plain the wildebeests left behind. And just like the beasts, it’s all because of their own gluttonous ways.
Fiscally, lawmakers will be forced to forage for whatever scraps the administration throws their way — and they won’t eat for free. Those who feed at the administration trough will have to toe the line, more like trained circus acts than wild animals.
Louisiana has an $865 million surplus, which will be doled out sometime next year by the administration of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. However, that rosy fiscal picture will give way to an anticipated $1.3 billion shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2009. In most households, the answer would be obvious: Use this year’s surplus to mitigate next year’s shortfall. Unfortunately, the surplus “cannot be used to mitigate the shortfall for Fiscal Year 2010,” says Commissioner of Administration Angéle Davis, the governor’s chief budget officer. Under our state constitution, the surplus can be used for one-time expenses such retiring debt, bolstering the coast and paying for construction projects. A surplus can even be placed in a savings account for future use, but it will still be confined to the same select areas of spending.
Rep. Joe Harrison, a Republican from Napoleonville, says a constitutional convention could be called to remove restrictions on surplus dollars and to alter the method in which budget cuts are applied. Jindal and his team are open to the idea, but it can’t happen soon enough to plug the coming $1.3 billion shortfall. Had lawmakers taken advantage of past opportunities to save money, the challenge might be less onerous. They gorged themselves on a $1 billion surplus earlier this year and increased spending in the current budget by another $1 billion this summer. Now the pastures aren’t so green, and state officials have no place to migrate.
Perhaps appropriately, Davis says the first items to be stripped from the coming budget will be lawmakers’ pet projects. Of course, that could just be the administration’s opening line in negotiations over the current $865 million surplus. Some lawmakers say the horse-trading has already started, with those on the receiving end expected to swallow Jindal’s budget cuts next year.
The predatory jockeying for the surplus dollars has taken solid form in a short period of time. The Capital Region Legislative Delegation, for instance, recently met with Davis and Jindal Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell to secure $60 million for Baton Rouge-area transportation projects. Senate Retirement Chairman Butch Gautreaux, a Democrat from Morgan City, is trying to line up $100 million to pay down debt in the state’s retirement systems. The overall tally, known as unfunded accrued liability, has eclipsed $10 billion; the requested $100 million is a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Many legislative budget requests have merit. But as the positioning intensifies, important issues are sure to fall by the wayside. Robyn Ekings, spokeswoman for Louisiana State Employees’ Retirement System, says there are concerns that unfunded accrued liability will fall prey to politics — again — as lawmakers grab money that impacts their respective constituents more than the state as a whole. “Paying down debt just isn’t a sexy issue,” Ekings says.
This $865 million surplus could be the last fiscal hoorah for a while, so Jindal and lawmakers should spend it wisely. Legislative Fiscal Officer H. Gordon Monk says all of the state’s financial indicators are pointing toward hard times. Sales taxes are flat, corporate income taxes are in decline and oil prices — Louisiana’s great equalizer — are as unpredictable as ever. In recent weeks, oil has fallen below $50 a barrel, its lowest price since May 2005. That’s dangerously close to the outer reaches of Louisiana’s comfort level. “We can’t find many pluses,” says Monk.
Jim Richardson, an LSU economist who also serves on the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference, says the situation should not be underestimated. What’s even more alarming is there’s no prior frame of reference. “There are more industries with negative growth numbers than positive growth numbers,” he says. “We have not been through a period like this.”
There’s a sense that many lawmakers, especially those who do not sit on the money committees, don’t grasp the complexity of the challenges. “I know it’s difficult for you to understand the severity because we’re coming off of two consecutive years of surplus,” Davis told lawmakers earlier this month. “Right now we’re facing a moment of truth.”
Truth is always hard to swallow. Lawmakers like to cut services about as much as wildebeests like to cross the dangerous Mara River. The gnus steel themselves for the task — to the point of sacrificing some of their own for the overall good of the herd — because they know they’ll find better times on the other side. Lawmakers, on the other hand, are not as willing to sacrifice. They fear another kind of population check: Louisiana voters at election time.
MAY 24 Blogger Robert Mann posts this entry about the Baton Rouge Chamber's recent report on Louisiana's higher education system. It's critical to economic development, and yet our system is facing a "funding crisis" with no way to resolve it, the report says. The Chamber says control of tuition and fees must be returned to the higher ed governing boards.
MAY 24 Here's a NBC33 story about Tyrann Mathieu. He has signed with the Arizona Cardinals, inking a $3 million, four-year deal. He gets a signing bonus of $265K, but gets another, larger bonus if he doesn't get cut from the team for doing drugs. The deal reportedly includes mandatory tests and meetings for the player.
MAY 24 Jarvis DeBerry posts here about the redonkulus rhetoric that would have us believe NOLA is a safe city with a murder problem. Maybe the city's crime stats don't compare with its murder stats because you can't manipulate a murder, he says: a dead body's a dead body. It just doesn't make sense, he says, and his readers agree: a poll asks if they believe the city is safe, and more than 90 percent say no.
MAY 24 Jindal administration officials announced Thursday that the privatization of public health care is going to cost a lot more than they budgeted for, the Advocate reports here. "I'm so surprised," said no one. Anywhere. The cost they're projecting now is more than $1 billion - a lot more than the $626 million budgeted for it. And, it's more than it cost the state to operate those hospitals. So why are we doing this again?
MAY 24 Blogger CB Forgotston ridicules the recent PR campaign by the state GOP in the wake of a legislative auditor's request to both major parties. The GOP (apparently unaware that the Dems got the same request) started yammering about being targeted because it had "killed" a tax increase. CB finds that laughable, but it's also pretty funny that the GOP was comparing this episode to the IRS scandal (Because the President has so much to do with our state auditor. Right?).
MAY 24 Politico details some recent fund-raising efforts by Sen. David Vitter, which have raised the question of his future political plans. This time, it is a $5,000 per head "bayou weekend" that includes "Cajun cooking" and an all-caps "alligator hunt," the story reports. Funds raised go to a super PAC that can spend money to support Vitter in federal or state races, the story points out.
MAY 24 The pink building on Royal in the quarter was sold at a sheriff's sale Thursday, this Picayune story reports. An injunction that would have halted the sale wasn't enforced because the family failed to post a $150,000 bond, the story reports. So the owner of the mortgages on the building bought it, for nearly $7 million. Now the feuding family will have to negotiate with that company to get a lease on the building that has housed their business for close to 60 years.
MAY 23 This post in Louisiana Voice tells us about a bill by a Winnsboro lege that would require all public high school students to take at least one Course Choice online class in order to graduate. (What?) Blogger Tom Aswell says it's a monument to "waste and corruption," especially in light of the problems he's exposed with the program in recent weeks. Idaho had a similar program, but voters removed it by a 2-1 margin, Aswell says.
There will soon be a whole lot of shakin’ going on at Benny’s Sportshack Supplement Depot, a new concept by Opelousas native Benny Nele. Located at 2002 Johnston St., the supplement shop, smoothie bar and café, featuring hot off the press paninis and wraps, plans to open in late May.
Philip deMahy Sr., a once respected New Iberia ad exec, was sentenced May 2 to spend the next two years (he faced up to 100 years) in a state penitentiary after state and federal investigators found dozens of images depicting children engaged in lewd sexual acts on his personal computer.