Mark Peterson, director of the Kansas Institute of Politics at Washburn University in Topeka, says we’re witnessing in Kansas what could be a turning point in the GOP’s internal civil war. The problems in Topeka follow the national party’s decades-long “purge” of moderates by “Grover Norquist-style conservatives – people who believe that government is hugely expensive, far too intrusive, provides way too many services and is a confiscator of wealth.”
Indeed, Brownback himself famously called Kansas’ incoming, one-party rule a real-world experiment in GOP fiscal and social policies. He and his allies wasted no time installing the supply-side economic idea that tax cuts will stimulate economic growth, a sure-fire, fiscally responsible way to grow the economy.
“Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,” Brownback wrote in a Wichita Eagle editorial in July 2012.
What followed, however, was an economic face-plant: growth flatlined, state revenue dried up and the conservative brain trust found itself on the business end of consecutive nine-figure deficits.
I know nothing about Kansas politics, so am in no position to comment (you are welcome to, however). But I do know something about Louisiana politics. We are in a terrible mess here, and most (but not all) of it has to do with Republican misrule.
The other day I was speaking to a friend I will call Kenneth, though his name is nothing close to that. He has to be anonymous because though not a politician, he is someone very much in a position to know the behind-the-scenes realities of the state’s budgeting process. To my great shock, he said, “The public doesn’t realize this, but LSU just came very close to being bankrupt.”
Wait … what? We all know that higher education has been gutted, year after year, under Gov. Jindal’s rule, aided by the Republicans, who control both houses of the legislature. And we also know that the state constitution, thanks to voter-approved amendments (note: not the Republican Party, but Louisiana voters), has firewalled almost all of the state budget from legislative cutters, leaving only public health and higher education to bear the brunt of any budget cuts.
But LSU, bankrupt? How does such a thing happen?
Kenneth calmed me down and said it looks like the legislature is going to pull out some funding at the last minute (the session ends this week).
“So who is going to pay the price for saving LSU?” I said.
“The poor,” he said, referring to the severe cuts headed to public health.
“I don’t want to sound naive here,” I said, “but isn’t that extremely unjust?”
Kenneth raised his eyebrows. “That’s a good question, but here’s the sad reality: the poor don’t vote.”
No, they don’t, and the rest of us don’t feel an obligation to provide much in the way of basic health care for them. Kenneth joked without really joking that if the people of Louisiana realized how close they came to losing LSU football this coming season, they would have rioted outside the State Capitol. But losing LSU academics? Yawn.
However, Governor Jindal (R-Grover) is holding the line. From today’s Baton Rouge Advocate:
Of the 11 tax measures approved by the House, most were approved by a majority that fell short of the two-thirds that would be needed to override a gubernatorial veto. About 25 to 35 Republicans in the 105-member House seem likely to vote against most revenue-raising measures.
Jindal previously told reporters that he would veto the budget if it contained a net increase in taxes, meaning that the dollar amount in higher taxes was greater than the offsets created through the passage of tax cuts and tax credits.
A veto of either the budget or the tax measures threatens to force a shutdown of state government when the new fiscal year begins on July 1, including LSU and the other public colleges and universities, because the state, unlike the federal government, cannot spend money it does not have.
A veto session cannot take place until July 21, under the state constitution.
Also up in the air in the budget fight is the size of the state cigarette tax increase, the future of the solar energy and film tax credits, and to what extent businesses will lose a variety of tax exemptions.
Legislators began the session two months ago facing a projected $1.6 billion budget deficit, after passing a budget last year that they balanced with $1.2 billion that wouldn’t be available this year.
Since the session began two months ago, legislators have been trying to fill the $1.6 billion budget gap through a series of spending cuts and revenue measures that would raise the state cigarette tax, scale back the solar energy and film tax credits, and roll back a small portion of the tax breaks given annually to businesses.
Smokers and businesses would have to accept a higher tax burden, Republicans and Democrats alike have said, because balancing the budget through spending cuts alone would fall on Louisiana’s colleges and universities and public health care with devastating results.
But in closing the budget gap, legislators would have to do it while complying with the anti-tax pledge that Jindal signed in 2003 with Americans for Tax Reform, a national anti-tax group headed by Grover Norquist.
The group’s rules do allow tax increases, Norquist wrote in a letter Monday to Louisiana legislators who oppose the SAVE fund. “Removing tax credits or deductions while reducing the tax rate so that the total bill is revenue neutral is not a tax hike,” he wrote.
It makes me want to tear my hair out that a Washington activist dictates policy to the Louisiana legislature, because he’s got Bobby Jindal and all the GOP presidential candidates in his back pocket. How many Grovers can dance on the head of the Governor’s veto pen? The legislature — again, GOP-dominated in both houses — is in a strongly anti-Jindal mood, but the governor of this state does have powers. Jindal is term-limited out this year, so he won’t have to suffer the consequences of vetoing the budget and shutting down state government. And he’s running for president, so all he cares about are the GOP primary voters in Iowa and elsewhere — and, naturally, Grover Norquist.
So yes, Louisiana has suffered tremendously from years of Republican misrule, and the Democratic Party is flat on its back. That said, it’s important to keep in mind how so many of our problems are self-inflicted. If our leaders are bad, so are our followers. Like I said, the state constitution is set up to straitjacket the budgeting process. There are vast areas of the state budget that cannot be touched. That’s a constitutional problem. We desperately need to call a constitutional convention to fix these structural problems.
On higher ed, though, there’s a political problem that’s not so easily solved. Louisiana has a sprawling public university system. We have 14 four-year public universities. As Kevin Boyd of The Hayride points out, Florida, with four times our population, only has 12 state universities. And more than a few of our state universities have abysmal graduation rates. The only reason for them to exist is that they satisfy political constituencies. Nobody in the legislature wants to make schools in their own districts vulnerable by trying to close somebody else’s. And no governor wants to lose the votes of a region by presiding over the shuttering of their local colleges.
Result: the slow starvation of the entire public education system. Here are the fruits. Excerpt:
Louisiana’s public colleges are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst as they face a drop in state funding of up to 82 percent. As the state legislature fails to make headway covering a $608 million shortfall in higher education spending, its public colleges are bracing for the prospect of budget cuts so deep some institutions — including the state’s biggest public flagship — might have to declare financial exigency. That’s college funding-speak for something akin to bankruptcy.
The potential threat to Louisiana’s public colleges is unprecedented, said Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the National American Association of University Professors.
“I don’t know if anything that drastic has occurred anywhere in modern times or perhaps ever,” he said. “It’s hard to know what cuts of that magnitude will amount to.”
Under financial exigency, a bankruptcy-like status that gives institutions a legal pathway to change contracts or other financial obligations, schools would have more freedom to lay off tenured professors or eliminate programs and departments.
“We need to have every tool at our disposal to survive,” said F. King Alexander, president and chancellor of the Louisiana State University system, who added that the school still hoped to avoid exigency. “We’re optimistic that we can get through this but as managers of the institution, we’ve got to play out every scenario,” he said.
This political problem is not new. It has been very clear for a long time that a state as poor as Louisiana cannot sustain a higher education system so large. But the public doesn’t want to face this reality, and no politician wants to make them face that reality. Again though, let us consider Herbert Stein’s Law: whatever cannot go on forever, won’t. The crash is not something coming in the future, it’s happening now. I ran into an LSU professor at the Walker Percy Weekend, who said bluntly, “LSU is broke.”
Though this political problem has been building through both Democratic and Republican legislatures and governors, and though the state constitution hamstrings the legislature and governor, no matter which party they belong to, the fact is that ours is a deeply Republican state, one that has been governed for seven years by an extremely ambitious Republican ideologue. Bobby Jindal is holding this state hostage to his presidential campaign — and it looks now like there still aren’t enough Republican votes in the legislature to override his vowed Norquist-dictated veto. And everybody knows Jindal means it, because to him, serving Jindal for President is not only the most important thing, it’s the only thing. Besides, when his campaign fizzles out on the launching pad, he won’t have to live here or raise his kids in the mess he’s made. He’ll be off to the Imperial City, Washington, where he will take some kind of job in the next Republican administration, or become part of GOP, Inc.
I don’t know what’s the matter with Kansas, but I do know what’s the matter with Louisiana. It’s a deep and complicated problem, but it’s been made much worse than it had to be by Republican ideology and Republican incompetence. But the poor don’t vote, and too few of us Louisianians of any race or class pay attention at all.