Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

Uncle Sam helps the Legislature polish its fiscal mettle.

Let me throw a number at you: One billion, eight hundred sixty-six million, five hundred eighty-nine thousand, six hundred and fifty-one. It looks really big when you write it out. That’s $1,866,589,651, or, rounding up and abbreviating, $1.9 billion.

Last week, following the close of the 2010 spring legislative session and having nothing better to do than induce drowsiness and tooth grinding, I logged on to the Legislature’s website and opened House Bill 1, the massive — 290 pages including table of contents — appropriations bill that line by line enumerates in excruciating detail the expenditures in Louisiana’s $26 billion budget.

I was looking for the frivolous and excessive, the bridges to nowhere and other pet pigs that invariably wallow their way into budgets during even the leanest fiscal years, and 2010 is a lean one. Specifically, I was seeking line items I could point to and ask, “They can fund this while making debilitating cuts to Decentralized Arts Funding and Statewide Arts Grants?”

But as I worked my way line by line through the bill, I repeatedly encountered a phrase — two dozens times to be precise — in the “means of finance” section detailing whence comes the funding for this agency or that: “Additional Federal and Other Funding Related to American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.”

The Kenyan communist fund!

The Legislature used nearly $2 billion in federal stimulus funds to balance the budget. I’ve since been told by state Rep. Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican who serves on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, that some of those lines might be so-called interagency transfers, meaning they show up twice in the budget. So, it’s probably not as high as $1.9 billion, but in the neighborhood. In fact, the Legislature leaned on $3 billion in stimulus money during the 2009 and 2010 sessions to balance consecutive budgets.

For the 2010-2011 fiscal year — the budget hashed out during the most recent session — Louisiana lawmakers used $362,819,112 in stimulus money to fund the Division of Administration, the massive state bureaucracy. Public education got $321 million; higher ed got $290 million. With Louisiana facing multi-billion dollar deficits this year and next, pragmatism, thankfully, trumped ideology.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, you may recall, told The Times-Picayune in February 2009, soon after the stimulus bill was passed, that he would have voted against it, and he characterized it as irresponsible in that widely panned Republican response to President Obama’s congressional address later that same month.

The stimulus was, according to Jindal, Big Government with capital letters.

And then he spent several weeks in 2009 travelling the state passing out big stage-prop checks bearing his name and official seal to local governments — checks drawn on the stimulus account, although the governor didn’t exactly trumpet the funding source at those many photo-ops.

So we’re left to speculate: Could the budget — consecutive budgets last year and this year, in fact — have been balanced without federal stimulus money? “The answer is yes,” says Cortez. “But not without severe, draconian cuts to many, many entities.”

Those entities would be the usual suspects — health care and higher education, Cortez admits. And in a city like Lafayette, which relies on UL and a robust health care sector for so many jobs and so much economic activity, the usual cuts would have been unusually painful.

“I don’t think there was anybody who was holistically opposed to taking $3 billion from the federal government over two years,” Cortez adds, “because the way it was couched to us was, if you don’t take it we’re just going to divvy it up amongst the other states, so we were kind of caught between a rock and hard place.”

Refusing the stimulus money wouldn’t send those dollars back to the U.S. Treasury, in other words; it would send the money to other states, to Texas and Oregon, Indiana and Tennessee, or, God forbid, Mississippi. Being 50th to our 49th in most measures of health and welfare, Mississippi must not get our share of stimulation.

But here’s the rub: The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 was one-time dollars — notwithstanding that we split it up into two budget years — and much of it was used for recurring expenses. Lawmakers won’t have stimulus money to balance the next budget, making the projected $1 billion to $2 billion deficit as ominous as that black blot in the Gulf.

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