This copy has been revised to correct the section "Health Care."
Why accomplish today what you can put off until next year? On matters of the state budget, that appears to have been the mantra for the 2009 legislative session, which saw lawmakers unable to institute any significant budgetary reforms while using one-time funding sources to pay for recurring expenses. Other session lowlights included Gov. Bobby Jindal insulating his office from public scrutiny under the guise of "transparency," restoring most funding for higher education but doing nothing to repair the state's long-term problems, and rejecting a permanent funding source for health care.
Here's a closer look at some of the major issues:
The Budget — Jindal and lawmakers knew for months that the state faced at least a $1.3 billion revenue "shortfall" thanks to a drop in mineral revenues and their decision last year to "roll back" the income tax brackets of the Stelly Plan. Rather than use this predicament as an impetus for fiscal and budgetary reform, the governor and lawmakers took the easy way out. Jindal provided no visible budgetary leadership, and lawmakers opted to use federal stimulus monies, the state's "rainy day fund" and other cash reserves to plug holes in the 2009-10 fiscal year budget. Using such nonrecurring funds to pay for recurring expenses is the height of irresponsibility, particularly when lawmakers and the governor know things will only be worse next year. Moreover, when bills were introduced that would have preserved or instituted a revenue source — such as delaying the Stelly rollback or imposing a modest 50-cents-a-pack cigarette tax — Jindal and lawmakers chose not to be accused of increasing taxes.
Transparency — Our governor loves transparency — as long as it doesn't apply to him or his office. State Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, once again introduced a bill to require all statewide elected officials, including the governor, to disclose any campaign contributions received from political appointees. Jindal flexed his muscle behind the scenes (an easy task for any Louisiana governor) and killed the measure in the House. At the same time, Jindal backed Senate Bill 278, the language of which is so vague that it's not clear what records in the governor's office are subject to Louisiana's Public Records Law. At a minimum, the Jindal-backed "transparency" bill gives the governor and his staff lots of wiggle room to refuse most public records requests. Jindal often touts his support of transparency, but his actions belie his words.
Higher Education — Jindal initially proposed cutting higher education by $213 million, which would have reduced or eliminated many programs and dealt the state's colleges and universities a severe blow. The good news is lawmakers restored $100 million of the cuts; the bad news is they used federal stimulus funds, which run out in 2012. Other bad news: Lawmakers rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state Board of Regents to raise tuition or fees at public institutions up to 5 percent without legislative approval. Most states so empower their higher education boards, and Louisiana should follow suit. Overall, Louisiana should prioritize higher education programs via an objective review of all public universities, recognizing that higher education is vital to Louisiana's cultural and economic development.
Health Care — Jindal's Louisiana Health First Plan, an HMO model of managed care for the state's Medicaid program, is still pending federal approval — and the governor offered no alternatives for addressing the issues of access, cost and quality control. While health care cuts weren't as draconian as Jindal first proposed, Louisiana's health care funding dilemma will only get worse. House Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson offered a cigarette tax bill — with revenues dedicated to health care ("The 50 Cent Cure," Gambit, June 12) — but the measure failed when Jindal's allies united against it. Had it passed, the bill would have leveraged $500 million in Medicaid dollars and discouraged teens from smoking. Locally, Jindal made things even worse by using his line-item veto power to cut all monies for the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH).
Elsewhere, the session saw some notable successes, such as raising tax credits on film production and restructuring the Saints deal to keep the team in New Orleans. Unfortunately, this year's session will be remembered more for our leaders' procrastination than their determination.