To hear the critics tell it, it's as if J. Wellington Wimpy crafted the state's proposed $24 billion budget for the next fiscal year. You know Wimpy: he's the round-faced, portly fellow from the Popeye the Sailor Man cartoons, the one always angling for a burger, as in, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."
Naysayers contend Gov. Bobby Jindal is trying to snag his own fiscal burger by putting off tough decisions — layoffs and substantive cuts — that need to be enacted during the legislative session that begins March 29.
Here's the lay of the land: The state faces a $1 billion shortfall in the 2010-11 fiscal year, which starts July 1, and an additional $1.7 billion decline in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Jindal's $24 billion budget proposal for 2010-11, which he sent to lawmakers last month, is about $5 billion less than the current 2009-10 budget. Republican and Democratic lawmakers already are asking for more reductions, fearing the state isn't properly preparing itself for the challenges that lie ahead.
"If we don't, we're facing the cliff in 2012," Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, a Democrat, told the Alexandria Town Talk recently. His House committee is the first to review the budget bill and will spend more time with it than any other group of legislators.
Lawmakers from Jindal's own party say his proposed layoffs don't go far enough. Of the 3,000 state jobs the governor proposes to cut, half are already unfilled and the rest would be cut through normal attrition. "We're ready. We want to cut," says Rep. Gordon Dove, a Republican and another Jindal committee chair.
Then there's fiscal policy. The governor's proposed budget uses one-time money to replace lost recurring revenues. That one-time money won't be there for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which is also around the time federal stimulus dollars will begin drying up. The governor also promises not to raise taxes this year, but that's a wimpy pledge; lawmakers can't levy taxes in regular sessions in even-numbered years.
Higher education, which represents a large chunk of state spending, would sustain a mere $5 million cut this year, and there's a move afoot to give higher ed governing boards authority to raise tuition, which would soften the blow next year. Under current law, lawmakers must approve tuition hikes, and that's always a messy fight.
Meanwhile, spending on Louisiana's $6.2 billion Medicaid program is set to decrease by $300 million, which is slightly less than 5 percent.
To a true freshman like Sen. Norby Chabert, a Democrat who has yet to serve in a session, Jindal's strategy seems odd. "If these two areas are going to be spared cuts, then that means someone else is going to take a beating," Chabert says.
Medicaid looms as a monster of a problem, in fact. It's a complex situation: The federal spending formula that determines how much money Louisiana gets in Medicaid matching funds is based on our citizens' per capita income over a certain period. Since the 2005 hurricane season, that figure has increased by more than 40 percent because Louisiana lost a large number of poor families and gained billions in one-time federal recovery dollars.
As a result, the federal share of Louisiana's Medicaid budget will fall by 10 percent next year, which puts an additional $500 million annual burden on the state. The Louisiana Hospital Association says the Medicaid cut's impact would be devastating: the loss of 8,390 jobs, a decrease in personal earnings of $340 million, and a $660 million reduction in overall business transactions.
The issue resonates with voters. According to a recent poll conducted for the hospital group by Southern Media and Opinion Research, nearly 70 percent of Louisiana voters believe Jindal and lawmakers should make health care funding the top budget priority. They likewise don't want elected officials to cut funding for health care services to balance the budget.
That's a lot of food for thought, even for a fictitious character like Wimpy. If Louisiana's elected officials don't get it right, they'll soon be worrying more about their own jobs — especially next year, come election time — than those they might be cutting from state government.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.