It is well established that Gov. Bobby Jindal ranks among the most risk-averse governors in Louisiana history. That's among the many reasons why his expected bid for the presidency is a national laughingstock. He's long on rhetoric and short on performance. And, by all indications, he won't be very engaged in the process of trying to solve the state's $1.6 billion budget hole — a hole he led the way in creating over the past six years. That means it's up to state lawmakers to save the state from further fiscal ruin, and to do that they must summon the kind of boldness that Jindal sorely lacks.
Louisiana legislators are famously low-key during election-year sessions. They historically try to get in and out of Baton Rouge without having to cast any controversial votes. That's not possible this year. They must choose between raising revenues and potentially shutting down public universities, not to mention severely cutting public health care. This is a time for boldness, not timidity.
The governor's proposed solution to the problem is a virtual non-starter. His plan to effectively raise taxes on businesses that pay local inventory taxes is novel in concept but too unpalatable politically. In the face of mounting criticism, he offers no "Plan B." Fortunately, a number of lawmakers have stepped up to present a wide variety of options — from temporarily suspending or eliminating tax exemptions and exclusions to repealing constitutional and statutory dedications. Others have discussed — quietly — the possibility of using the procedural device of veto-proof resolutions to raise revenues. Given the enormity of the problem, every idea should be on the table.
The most dangerous political course of all is maintenance of the status quo.
Some of the legislative proposals are focused on the long term because they require voter approval of constitutional amendments in October — well into the next fiscal year and therefore of no help in the present crisis. Others are aimed at addressing the immediate problem just long enough to give the next governor and Legislature time to fix things long-term. All of these options should be seriously considered. Even though it's not going to be popular to suggest eliminating certain revenue dedications and constitutional mandates, we think many dedications and mandates need to be scaled back or eliminated. This is especially true when you consider that higher education and health care — clearly two top priorities — remain unprotected by dedications while funding for so many lesser priorities is enshrined in the statutes or in the state Constitution.
For years, lawmakers have told voters that their hands are tied when it comes to most of the state budget. Typically, they use that as an excuse for cutting health care and higher education. While it's true that constitutional mandates and dedications limit lawmakers' spending options, the present crisis presents a golden opportunity to untie the Legislature's hands — by repealing or scaling back most if not all of the statutory dedications and letting voters decide whether to eliminate or reduce constitutional mandates and dedications.
No doubt promoters of entrenched special interests will warn lawmakers that it's political suicide to tamper with budgetary sacred cows. We disagree. In our view, the most dangerous political course of all is maintenance of the status quo.