For several years now, state officials have known that the next fiscal year will see the most dramatic revenue decline in Louisiana history. They have dubbed it "the cliff year," as in falling off a fiscal cliff. It's an appropriate metaphor.
Most state legislators are looking to the spring of 2011 with dread, knowing they will have to make deep budget cuts right before they run for re-election. And that's right after redrawing House and Senate districts (in a separate special session), which is always a bloody mess.
I have followed Louisiana's legislative process for more than three decades. Fiscal crises are nothing new. The one staring lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal in the face, however, looms larger than anything in our lifetimes. If the governor and lawmakers fail to make good choices in the next eight months, their decisions could wipe out some public universities and hospitals ... or set them back so far that it will take decades to recover.
It doesn't have to be that way.
With vision and leadership, Jindal and lawmakers can approach this crisis as an opportunity — a chance to reinvent state government. They still would have to make tough decisions, but their decision-making matrix would shift from a short-term, one-year plan to a long-term, three- to five-year plan for changing the scope of state government and turning our balkanized higher education system into one with integrated flagship, junior and community colleges — a system based on excellence, not politics.
That takes leadership, which is in short supply these days. Jindal, who likes to portray himself as decisive, is actually the most risk-averse governor in my lifetime. Instead of seeing this crisis as a chance to reinvent state government, he's posing for photo ops, passing the buck, and raising millions out of state on his perpetual I'm-not-really-running-for-president campaign.
Fiscally, Jindal is preparing another one-year budget that he is keeping under wraps (his administration is, after all, one of the least "transparent" in the nation) until February. That will leave lawmakers very little time to study his proposed budget and suggest alternatives.
Thankfully, some lawmakers are working on the problem on their own. State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, and House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, chaired special committees tasked with recommending ways to trim state government and higher education costs last year, with mixed results.
Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, and others are talking about suspending some tax breaks that lawmakers foolishly adopted in 2008 (such as rolling back the Stelly income tax brackets — which voters adopted in 2002 in a statewide referendum). Interestingly, the proposed suspensions could be enacted via a concurrent resolution, which Jindal (who values his "tax virginity" more than the state's long-term fiscal viability) could not veto.
Another interesting tack comes from state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers, a practicing optometrist who has made it his mission to spare public hospitals from unnecessary cuts. In 2009, Heitmeier authored a bill to leverage parish contributions to community hospitals to get more federal health care dollars. Earlier this year, he expanded that idea to re-engineer the funding and operations of local health services contracts so state dollars could be redirected to leverage even more federal matching dollars. State and federal health officials are working out details of the Heitmeier plan, but in the coming years his proposals could bring in well over half a billion dollars in health care funds for public, private and community hospitals.
That's the kind of vision and leadership that's needed across the board. Unfortunately, it's not what we've been getting from Bobby Jindal.