Yesterday, a little more than a week after taking office, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards outlined his stopgap proposal to rescue the state from an existential budget crisis. After spending his entire professional career in government (with the exception of a gig with McKinsey that he held for a few months after college), his predecessor, Bobby Jindal, recently moved into a brand-new million dollar home, leaving behind some office furniture, an oil painting of himself, and a projected $1.9 billion structural deficit.
Gov. Jindal, notoriously and unforgivably, spent the last several months of his tenure embarking on a quixotic campaign for President. Just like his stint on the fourth floor of the Louisiana State Capitol, he ultimately abandoned his campaign after it went belly-up. But the implosion of his presidential campaign pales in comparison to the damage he inflicted on the state he was tasked with protecting.
In his eight years as governor, Bobby Jindal never met a tax cut he didn’t support. “Louisiana isn’t a poor state,” he said frequently on the campaign trail in 2007. It wasn’t true then, and most certainly, it’s not true today. His reflexive, obstinate opposition to any and all taxes combined with decreases in the price of oil (which provides a significant portion of the state’s revenue) created a perfect storm. Louisiana was his great experiment in the Grover Norquist School of Economics, and it failed miserably.
Hospitals and emergency rooms were shuttered. Hundreds of thousands of working class citizens were denied access to health insurance due to his refusal to accept $3 billion in federal support for Medicaid expansion. Millions were drained away from public education in order to prop up a string of fly-by-night, unaccountable voucher schools.
We spent millions more litigating against marriage equality and public records disputes and unconstitutional laws regulating access to abortion. We burned a fortune building sand berms that disappeared almost as quickly as they were constructed in the aftermath of the BP oil spill.
In the last several years, we’ve squandered billions in order to lure large employers into Louisiana, an investment that has remained largely elusive and has done nothing to improve the state’s bottom line. We repealed a law, which had only recently been enacted through a popular statewide referendum, that closed the loopholes on double-dipping federal and state tax deductions, costing nearly $300 million a year in revenue.
We eliminated more than $700 million in funding for higher education, the highest disinvestment in the entire country, forcing our state’s colleges and universities on the edge of bankruptcy (or financial exigency) and imposing an enormous burden on students and families through increases in fees and tuition. Museums and libraries throughout the state have been decimated. Cultural arts programs have been eliminated. Critical infrastructure projects have been mothballed. Jindal, famously, bragged that he had fired 30,000 state employees.
Simply put, there isn’t anything left to cut, but there is a litany of things that must be rescued immediately.
For far too long, Republican legislators and conservative commentators in Louisiana have been hypnotized by the belief that the only way to fix the government is by gutting the government. Bobby Jindal came into office with a $1 billion surplus, which he inherited from his Democratic predecessor; he left it with a $1.9 billion deficit and a state reeling from his negligence.
We are not a better state today than we were eight years ago, and if we hadn’t been led by a man who burned every bridge he could with the federal government and aligned himself more with Grover Norquist than with the people of Louisiana, all in a cynical effort to position himself to become the next president, we likely would be better.
Republican legislators would be wise to learn the lessons of Jindal’s tenure and to take note of the fact that he left office as the most unpopular governor in Louisiana history for a damn good reason.
The solutions proposed by Gov. Edwards are not perfect, and without question, he and his team recognize that. They only serve to temporarily stop the bleeding: An immediate 1-cent increase in the state sales tax (which they seek to eventually rollback), a hike in so-called “sin taxes” on alcohol and cigarettes, the use of settlement money from BP, and the use of a portion of the state’s “rainy day” fund.
None of these can fix the structural problems we currently face. For those to be solved, we must be willing to tackle larger inequities in our tax system, and for that to happen, we need Republicans in the legislature to finally have some backbone and understand exactly what is at stake here.
It is all too easy for conservative critics to rely on the trope of a bloated government. Louisiana isn’t bloated, though; Louisiana is starving. We can’t be healthy or sustainable merely by selling off the state’s car fleet or focusing our energies on reducing food stamp fraud. Those make for good talking points. They appeal to folks with only a cursory understanding of what is truly at stake. But we are fooling ourselves if we believe it is remotely possible to cobble together enough “waste, fraud, and abuse” to even make a dent.
Treasurer John Kennedy recently pointed to the state’s “19,000 consulting contracts,” arguing that we could save considerable money if we only cut those contracts by 5%. It’s the same exact argument he made three years ago, when the legislature unanimously passed a bill cutting those same 19,000 contracts by 10%. It’s worth noting that these numbers include more than 4,000 contracts worth less than $50,000 and cover an enormous range of services and projects, including academic research.
Treasurer Kennedy also claimed that 10% of all spending on Medicaid is fraudulent, suggesting it amounts to as much as $830 million a year. The truth is that fraudulent Louisiana Medicaid spending amounts to less than $9 million a year, and in recent years, Louisiana has been able to recover as much as 96% of that spending. Kennedy has the gall to argue that any tax increase proposals are “stupid” and then back up his argument with a series of easily debunked talking points that rely on fundamental distortions of the facts. He also recently attempted to wage the same kind of war over food stamp fraud, which accounts for 0.75% of the program’s expenditures.
This is sophomoric and deceptive pandering. It’s misleading propaganda, and for several years, Treasurer Kennedy has shamelessly attempted to convince voters, under the imprimatur of his office, that he somehow is in possession of the magic bullet. In actuality, though, he’s got nothing but a screed against taxes of any kind, which he believes will help him establish his Republican bona fides, and a bunch of incomplete homework he conducted on wasteful spending, lies that he can distort to his advantage.
The same criticism applies to a blogger at The Hayride, who seemed delighted that he’d recently discovered mathematics. “Because Edwards’ one-time money usage, which makes the current budget deficit $262 million, obviates the need for the big tax increases he wants,” the blogger writes, “let him go back to the drawing board and find the rest of the $262 million in cuts.” Apparently, this particular blogger is the only person in the entire state, aside from John Kennedy’s fuzzy math, who earnestly believes it’d be easy to find yet another way to slash an additional 10% to 20% in cuts.
“The good news is that $262 million will be cuts that are bankable,” the blogger wrongly asserts. “(I)n other words, you don’t have to restore them, and if they’re midyear cuts you can get even more out of them over an entire year. If he’s (Gov. Edwards’s) making a midyear cut of $262 million that might be, say, $524 million over a whole year. So if $1.9 billion is the number for next’s year’s deficit, you’ve just shrunk that down to $1.4 billion. Bank his cuts to the statutorily dedicated funds, and that might get you another $320 million, getting you close to the $1 billion mark.”
Congratulations to this blogger. He figured out a way of lying and distorting our budget catastrophe in order to avoid any increase in taxes and ensure that we are nonetheless left with a $1 billion deficit.
We need to grow up. Our legislators and elected officials need to realize their fiduciary responsibility to their constituents is more important than their loyalty to their contributors.
We need, once and for all, to pull the plug on Bobby Jindal’s failed experiment.