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.
MAY 23 Here's a story in the Picayune about some statistics that must come as a blow to folks who believe that any private school can do a better job of educating kids than any public school: Danielle Dreilinger reports that only 30 percent of the voucher kids are passing. That's less than half of the state wide average, she says. It's an interesting statistic because most of the schools (if not all) taking voucher kids have never had their students' standardized test scores released to the public before.
MAY 23 Stephen Sabludowsky blogs on Bayou Buzz about auditor requests here. Recently the state GOP started crowing about a request from the Legislative Auditor, claiming they were being targeted because of their anti-tax stance. (Uh, your what?) Denial and hyperbole aside, the state Democratic party blew holes in that theory with an email announcing they'd received the same request, Sabludowsky writes here.
MAY 23 Jim Brown blogs about the senate race in this post. He says that, given Bobby Jindal's "lack of traction" on the national stage, it might make more sense for the governor to consider running against Mary Landrieu for the senate seat. Since Tim Teeple left the Cassidy team, it makes sense he might land on a Jindal for Senate team, Brown opines.
MAY 23 In this Louisiana Voice post, blogger Tom Aswell writes of rumors that his nemesis, state Superintendent of Education John White, may be soon departing Louisiana for a federal post. It's hard to believe, given his performance, Aswell says, but stranger things have happened. An anti-White BESE member says that, if true, White is quitting before he can be fired.
MAY 23 In this post on American Zombie, blogger Jason Berry writes about the Mother's Day shooting. Mayor Landrieu said that "this is not who we are," but the fact is, this is New Orleans, Berry writes. The violence infused in the city is the result of a culture created by "sins of omission or sins of commission," Berry writes. It's not a problem that can be solved by legislating, policing, praying or publicizing, he says: Someone's got to understand what's happening first.
MAY 23 This post in the Westside Journal tells us what Port Allen Mayor Deedy has been up to lately: vetoing ordinances, apparently. This story is most interesting, however, when it delves into a petition that has been circulating around the city lately. It accuses the former mayor of a lot of nasty things; the former mayor says it is full of lies and "broken syntax" which may be a larger offense in his eyes.
MAY 23 This editorial posted in The Advocate is a bit confusing. The writing is poor - definitely not up to the usual editorial writing standard there - and the point is hard to grasp. Apparently, the writer is saying that privatization of state efforts is OK, as long as there is oversight and transparency, but Jindal's not good at that, and the legislature shouldn't over-react. Okey Dokey. Can't they get one of them Pulitzer-winning people to write an editorial?
MAY 23 This post on The Lens gives you links to a new Google Earth tool that allows you to see any spot on earth transform over the past 30 years. Bob Marshall, who covers the coast for the paper, says that in the case of Louisiana's coastline, it's possibly something you don't want to see, because it's not a pretty picture. There are several clips here, showing critical areas erode away. For Marshall, it was vindication for all those times he was met with eye-rolling when he talked about erosion.
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.