Lanny Keller: Baton Rouge most at risk in budget battle
The battle over Common Core was supposed to convulse the 2015 session of the Legislature, sucking all the oxygen out of debates on anything else in a short fiscal session, instead of next year’s longer general session.
Funny, but the short fiscal session is looking like it’s going to be exactly that, a session dominated not by disputes over testing and local schools but finances — particularly the crashing of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s second-to-last budget proposal.
For Capitol insiders, the straws in the political winds are more significant than even the dreadful numbers reported to key committees in the last few weeks.
The numbers are important, obviously, with an estimated $1.4 billion shortfall between anticipated needs and costs of services, and the money available to pay for them.
No one predicts that this will be easy, and it’s become worse since the fall in oil prices has hurt state mineral revenues. But the budget was headed for disaster no matter what, because of last year’s decisions — by the governor and legislators, remember — to fund operating expenses with about $985 million in one-time money or dodgy shifts of cash from one fund to another.
Reality is tough when it hits the State Capitol, where it’s about as welcome as a legislator having to buy his own cocktails. But Gov. Bobby Jindal and his commissioners of administration have ducked and weaved through budget crises before. That this year is tougher is shown by the various straws in the wind politically.
One of them is the insouciance with which Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols told lawmakers that cuts would be made, efficiencies found — the same blah-blah that legislators have heard for years. That few lawmakers bothered to clear their throats during this recitation shows how little genuine communication there is between the Legislature and the executive branch.
Nobody trusts nobody, and that bodes not well for state institutions, particularly those in the Baton Rouge area.
Another straw in the wind: The governor actually telephoned a local reporter to defend himself. Not a local reporter in Ames, Iowa, or Manchester, New Hampshire — but Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press downstairs.
The governor said he would issue a budget this month that would be accompanied by options for lawmakers to make deeper but alternative cuts to balance the budget. Call it cynicism, but no one in the Capitol believes that these will be achievable politically, or that our absentee governor will waste any of his precious presidential campaign time supporting them. The harder the task he foists off as an “option,” the less realistic the whole budget “process” will be.
Finally, when interest groups are starting to talk about reductions in their tax breaks ahead of time, that’s a sign that hard times are really hard. Whether those talks actually generate agreement is not assured, but that things like a cap on the lavish break for Hollywood movie producers are even discussed is significant.
The capital city ought to be most worried about this problem. Not only because much state employment is concentrated in the region but because the diversification of the local economy is highly dependent on saving the academic quality of LSU and Southern universities, LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center and Baton Rouge and River Parishes community colleges.
Every region of the state faces similar problems, but the capital city is in a class by itself for its vulnerability to budget chaos created by its native son, Bobby Jindal.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is [email protected]