COLUMN: Governors have to be more flexible
Most Louisiana governors in recent times have had budget problems, but some were more successful than others in finding solutions because they were flexible. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s unbending devotion to not passing taxes or raising revenues in other ways during the seven years he has been in office has decimated higher education, and it will take decades to recover.

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards represented the other extreme. He never hesitated to promote higher taxes in the face of declining revenues. No one likes higher taxes, but sometimes they are necessary in order to provide the services taxpayers want from their government.

Edwards began his unprecedented third term in 1984 with a proposed $1 billion revenue package he said was necessary to provide those services citizens have come to expect. In an address to the House, the governor said he wasn’t threatening, but he would shut down the special session if his taxes ran into opposition.

“You can’t get run over if you’re on the train,” Edwards told House members.

A legislator who was opposed to the tax package sized up the alternatives for those who didn’t fall in line.

“Heck, you don’t have any choice but to get on that train,” he said. “That thing’s going so fast, you’re going to get sucked along in the wake.”

Edwards didn’t get everything he wanted, but the final package that passed totaled $729 million. Few were exempt from paying the new taxes. Taxpayers got hit if they filled up their gas tank, purchased anything other than food or medicine, drank beer, wine or other alcoholic beverages, paid insurance premiums, bought sand, gravel or timber, smoked cigarettes or received oil royalties.

Two years later, Edwards got lawmakers to agree to a one-percent sales tax on previously exempt purchases of groceries, medicine and utility bills. He said it was necessary to soften the blow of $600 million in budget cuts.

Former Gov. Buddy Roemer came up with a new wrinkle when he took office in 1988. In order to erase a $1.3 billion deficit, he supported creation of the Louisiana Recovery District to sell bonds to retire that debt. The district was given authority to use revenues from one-percent of the state four-percent sales tax to retire the bonds.

Critics said it was a move designed to skirt the constitution that prohibits selling bonds to retire an operating funds deficit. A suit was filed, but the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Lawmakers also approved a measure allowing state department secretaries to increase fees for services, but only to cover the actual cost of the services.

Edwards was back in office in 1993 for his fourth term, and had the Legislature approve $120 million in new taxes. One was a one-percent sales tax on groceries and utilities. He wanted $500 million in new taxes.

Legislators were prohibited from raising taxes during a regular session, but they skirted that requirement by suspending the sales tax exemption on food and utilities.

Supporters of the tax said it was necessary to save higher education from huge budget cuts.

Former Gov. Mike Foster had an extremely successful first session in 1996. However, those temporary sales taxes on food and utilities were approved again, as they had been since 1986. Lawmakers did agree to reduce the 4-percent tax to three percent.

The $12.2 billion budget that was approved provided pay raises for public school teachers and college professors, additional money for highway work, maintenance for higher education buildings, increased supplemental pay for police, firemen and deputies and more money for state parks.

The American Press in an editorial said, “There’s probably no greater sign that business is not as usual in Baton Rouge than Gov. Mike Foster’s proposed state budget.

“In the past, most budgetary projections were little more than wishful thinking or tricky accounting.”

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco didn’t have those temporary sales taxes on food and utilities to work with, but she got off to a good start in 2004. The sales taxes had been eliminated with the Stelly Plan that increased income taxes.

The Associated Press said, “Gov. Kathleen Blanco was praised for giving the Legislature a budget proposal for 2004-05 that took a different approach from many past governors. Her ($17.5) billion spending plan for the new year that begins July 1 didn’t keep most agencies and services whole by balancing all the cuts in one area like health care or (higher) education.”

Then came Jindal in 2008. The governor’s first budget of $29.9 billion was a good one. It continued nearly all state services, expanded health care and education programs and boosted state spending by $1 billion.

By 2009, there was a $1.3 billion shortfall that started the almostannual cutbacks to higher education and health care. A $580 million midyear budget cut had to be dealt with in 2010.

Those trends have continued since then, and Jindal has refused to back down from his no-tax pledge. He also opposes ending tax breaks as a means of raising revenues.

The flexibility and spirit of compromise that characterized earlier administrations no longer exists. Budgets have been patched together with unbelievable methods, and it appears nothing will change until a new governor takes office.

Meanwhile, the annual budget reductions have taken a tremendous toll on all facets of state government. The recovery will be long and difficult.


JIM BEAM, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871 or .