Louisiana has a $750 million current-year deficit and a $1.9 billion structural deficit next fiscal year. This is no time for Washington D.C.-style gridlock.
Optimistic but blunt: That was the tone Gov. John Bel Edwards struck in his inaugural speech last week as he outlined his priorities for his first term. Those priorities include attacking poverty, improving K-12 education, increased funding for health care, highways and higher education, and fixing the budget mess left by former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
"I can tell you I'd rather be here today inheriting a billion dollar surplus than a $1.9 billion shortfall," Edwards said in an obvious reference to Jindal's disastrous fiscal policies. "We can no longer afford to lurch from year to year, cobbling together temporary fixes and expecting to realize permanent sustainability. If we don't fix the structural budget deficit, we can't fix any of our other problems."
We agree. It's time for state legislators — and Edwards — to put party differences aside. Jindal received little pushback during his eight years in office; lawmakers (including Edwards, who was in the Legislature then) thus share the blame for Louisiana's red ink. Fixing our deficit will require raising taxes in some way, a fact that responsible Republicans and pro-business groups acknowledge. How to get it done? There's the rub.
Edwards and lawmakers have a chance to make structural changes to Louisiana's patchwork tax code and end Louisiana's deficit cycle. In our cover story last week ("Louisiana's Hangover," Jan. 12), we outlined the key recommendations: phasing out sales tax exemptions (some of which may require constitutional changes); lowering personal income and corporate tax rates while eliminating exemptions; and eliminating or reducing budget dedications that force lawmakers to cut vital services during tough times.
Any fixes will have to get done by a Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature. Time is of the essence. Louisiana has a $750 million current-year deficit, which must be covered by June 30, and a $1.9 billion structural deficit next fiscal year. This is no time for Washington D.C.-style gridlock.
Already there are signs of partisanship. In a vote largely along party lines, the House chose Republican state Rep. Taylor Barras over Democrat Walt Leger (Edwards' pick) as speaker — after GOP pressure groups threatened Republican lawmakers with recalls and other forms of intimidation if they backed Leger. Fortunately, Barras is not a ideological partisan. We hope he will work both sides of the aisle and put Louisiana's interests first.
The Senate seems less divided, but new Labor Committee Chairman Neil Riser says he'll fight Edwards' plan for a modest minimum-wage hike. And family-values groups are rattling their sabers over Edwards' selection of Dr. Rebekah Gee as head of the state Department of Health and Hospitals. They claim she is pro-choice, but that wasn't a problem when she joined Jindal's DHH in 2010 and then was named medical director for Louisiana's Medicaid program under Jindal.
At least in the near term, both the governor and the GOP-controlled Legislature must put culture wars aside and fix the common fiscal problems that confound all Louisianans. If they fail to do that, there will be little else worth fighting about.