When Gov. Bobby Jindal took office in January 2008, he inherited a state budget that included a $1 billion surplus. During these tough economic times, that seems like a distant memory, almost a fairy tale — yet it was only four years ago.
What did Jindal do with all that money? In the hip-hop vernacular, he made it rain. He rolled back income taxes that voters approved under the so-called Stelly Plan in 2002, plowed $245 million into lawmakers' pet projects and created a slew of tax breaks, including one with a price tag of $360 million. Jindal called it "terrific news."
The good news didn't last long.
Jindal's first Christmas in the governor's mansion brought news of a $341 million midyear budget shortfall. The young governor, an avowed fiscal conservative, somehow had allowed the state to spend more money than it took in. Complicating matters, revenue forecasters warned of a possible $2 billion deficit for the 2009-2010 budget year.
From that point forward, Louisiana's fiscal fortunes went into free fall, even as the governor's press office cranked out news releases crowing about Louisiana's supposed good fortunes. During the summer of 2009, Jindal convinced lawmakers to establish the Streamlining Government Commission. He called for $802 million in recommended cuts. The commission made 238 recommendations toward that goal, but less than half of them were enacted.
In 2010, lawmakers faced a $580 million midyear budget deficit amid reports of a $1.6 billion fiscal "cliff" the following year. The centerpiece of Jindal's 2010 legislative package was a bill aimed at online sex predators. In essence, he told voters to pay no attention to that fiscal demon behind the curtain.
As the 2011 session neared, the $1.6 billion shortfall loomed large; some said it could approach $2 billion. Thanks to some clever accounting and some fiscal legerdemain that would make Enron blush, the $1.6 billion "shortfall" was covered. At least for one year — enough to get Jindal past his re-election campaign.
Or was it?
In December, two months after his "landslide" re-election, Jindal had to make $251 million in midyear cuts. Then, last month, the Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) announced another revenue gap, this one exceeding $514 million — $211 million for the current fiscal year and an estimated $303 million for the new year beginning July 1.
In every year since Jindal took office, the administration's budget numbers have proved way off the mark. Jindal's bad math has become a chronic problem for Louisiana.
How did this happen? The REC shares part of the blame — and rest assured Team Jindal will make sure someone other than the governor gets blamed. As its name implies, the REC is charged with estimating state revenues — independently of the governor and lawmakers — and its estimates are binding. Since 2008, the REC, packed with Jindal backers, has overestimated revenues. That's anything but a conservative approach.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 20 states have crafted current-year budgets without midyear corrections. So it is possible to budget prudently, even in these difficult economic times. One of the reasons Louisiana does not rank among the prudent states is because it's easier for Jindal to pretend there's no real crisis — until after the annual legislative sessions. Then he can cut as he pleases without major legislative battles.
If he has a fiscal policy, it could be summed up in a question: Why deal with a budget crisis today when you can put it off till tomorrow?
So here we are. State government salaries are higher than ever, especially in the executive branch, while funding for education and health care — especially mental health care in New Orleans — has been cut significantly.
What would have happened if, back in 2008, Jindal had invested that $1 billion surplus and prodded lawmakers to temporarily suspend Stelly instead of repealing it? The answer is speculative, but no guessing is required to conclude that Bobby Jindal has failed Louisiana as a fiscal steward.
— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.