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The State of the State of Louisiana

The hangover after the Jindal years

WAFB is a Baton Rouge television station. And yes, we are having this conversation. The thing is, the answer to this real question might really turn out to be, “Hell, no!”

Louisiana is having its worst-ever budget crisis. The state legislature is in special session now to try to plug the nearly billion-dollar budget hole. Thank you, former Gov. Bobby Jindal. Yes, the new governor is a Democrat, but he’s been in office for less than two months, and he inherited a hellacious mess from his predecessor. How’s that? Look:

Louisiana is in a financial mess for a number of complicated reasons — including that former Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana Legislature passed budgets for years that used temporary funding for ongoing expenses.

For example, Jindal would use legal settlements or the profits from state property sale — money that wouldn’t be available the following year — to cover the state’s basic, ongoing bills. This created problems, because the money wasn’t available in the next year to cover those same expenses.

In the current budget, Edwards says Jindal and the Legislature included $800 million of the so-called one-time money. Now, new funding must be found to replace that money for the next budget cycle.

It’s not only Jindal’s fault. This story explains some of the structural reasons the budget is as bad off as it is. Part of that involves a tax repeal started under the last Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, and completed under her successor Jindal and the GOP-led legislature:

Blanco initiated a rollback of what’s called the Stelly Plan — a tax program approved statewide by voters in 2002. Jindal and lawmakers then fully trashed the initiative in 2008, during the governor’s first year in office.

Named for former Lake Charles lawmaker Vic Stelly, the plan raised income taxes on mostly moderate-to-wealthy people and did away with a sales tax on food and utilities that disproportionately affected poor people.

It was passed and supported by Republican Gov. Mike Foster, but it had become a target for conservative talk radio by 2007, when lawmakers and Blanco passed the first portion of the repeal. Lawmakers and Jindal followed up by fully rolling back the Stelly plan the next year.

Albrecht said if Louisiana still had Stelly in place, the state would have about $800 million more in the bank each year. That amount of money would go a long way to addressing Louisiana’s current $940 million shortfall and the $2 billion problem that exists for the next fiscal cycle.

The new Gov. John Bel Edwards is proposing raising taxes on booze and cigarettes to raise the money needed. If legislators can’t solve the problem, there will be devastating cuts to higher education in the state. One state college said today that it might have to close before the end of the spring semester.

It gets worse. Next year’s state budget is going to be short $2 billion.

A friend who is in a position to know — really — tells me that the main problem is Jindal’s gimmicky budgeting, but it’s also the case that there is an incredible amount of, yes, waste, fraud, and abuse in state government, especially in Medicaid (a point that the Republican state treasurer is now making). Gov. Edwards just took a swipe at Jindal, widely disliked, even among Republicans, for gallivanting around the country running for president while the state’s finances stumbled toward collapse.

So, yeah, baby, your booze or your baccalaureate? That’s where we are after eight years of Republicans in charge of the executive and legislative branches. Again, it would be inaccurate and unfair to say it was entirely their fault; some of this stuff is baked into Louisiana’s constitutional cake. Still, eight years they had to fix this, to work on it, to lead. And … this.



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