"This thing's scaring me. Did Stephen King write it?" — Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, reviewing Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposed 2013 budget
In the spring of 2008, as Louisiana lawmakers convened during Gov. Bobby Jindal's first year in office, a wise man bemoaned the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars in the state budget were "non-recurring" or one-time funds allocated toward "recurring" or annual expenses. The wise man correctly called that allocation an irresponsible and unsustainable way of filling budget holes. "That is like using your credit card to pay your mortgage," he said.
Who was that wise man?
None other than Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Today, state legislators might want to remind Jindal of that statement, which is still on the governor's website (www.gov.state.la.us). For reasons no doubt related to political expediency and personal ambition, Jindal now thinks that using one-time funds is a swell idea. That, despite a constitutional prohibition against using one-time money for recurring expenses.
The governor paints himself as a principled fiscal conservative, but his actions show him to be something else altogether. He has relied upon one-time funds in every budget he has submitted as governor — going back six fiscal years now — and each time the result has been the same: devastating mid-year cuts to health care and higher education. Worst of all, each set of mid-year cuts was entirely foreseeable. Yet each year the governor follows the same script: relying upon rosy budget projections and fairy-tale contingencies that ultimately run head-on into fiscal reality, to the detriment of health care and higher education.
After five years of this madness, Louisiana voters have had enough. The governor's approval ratings are in the tank, with more than 60 percent of the state's registered voters giving him low marks. More than 77 percent say higher education and health care have been cut too much already and should not be cut further. They blame Jindal for those cuts, and rightfully so.
The governor is fond of pushing for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He compares government spending to a household budget. Such homespun wisdom bears no relation to the way government operates, but even on that level Jindal doesn't measure up. In his current budget proposal, $449 million comes from one-time funding, much of it speculative. For example, he proposes selling state assets to fund higher education. If those assets don't sell, higher ed will face another round of mid-year cuts. Using Jindal's "household" metaphor, that's the equivalent of hoping to sell off everything in the backyard shed to pay the utility bill. If the yard sale doesn't happen, the lights will go out.
That scenario is not far-fetched. Jindal's current-year budget relies on money from leasing the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH), which still hasn't happened, with barely two months to go in the current fiscal year.
Elsewhere, Jindal proposes to borrow, through budgetary legerdemain, $100 million — interest free — from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center's reserve fund to pay for public colleges and universities next year. He promises to "repay" the convention center through the state's capital outlay budget, which would put back into "reserve" $100 million that would otherwise go toward construction projects around the state. State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Jefferson, one of the "fiscal hawks" who has tried to hold Jindal's feet to the fire on budget matters, rightly calls the governor's plan an "accounting gimmick."
Jindal's fiscal irresponsibility doesn't stop at the budget. He grabbed headlines in recent months for his similarly reckless plan to replace Louisiana's individual income tax with the highest combined sales tax rate in the nation. That idea crashed and burned after the governor's point man on "tax reform" admitted to lawmakers that the plan would raise taxes on Louisiana businesses by more than $500 million a year. The governor abruptly dropped the idea — then told legislators to find a way to eliminate income taxes on their own. Lawmakers from both parties balked, and the idea appears dead for now.
In December, Jindal gave President Barack Obama some unsolicited advice about the so-called fiscal cliff, telling him that any solution should be "one-time, limited and accompanied by structural reform to make sure we don't repeat this nightmare." If only the governor would practice at home what he preaches to Washington. Unfortunately, with Bobby Jindal at the helm of Louisiana's "household," we've seen no structural reform — and we've repeated the budget nightmare every year. The next fiscal year looks to be no different.