BOBBY JINDAL IS DEMOLISHING LOUISIANA, BUT WE ELECTED HIM AND THE LEGISLATORS WHO LET HIS WRECKING BALL SWING.
Bobby Jindal’s Jan. 24 pep rally for piety didn’t leave Louisiana with a prayer. Short of the miraculous growth of a spine by the Legislature over the next year, he will leave his successor — especially a supply-side Republican who cleaves to the same retrograde economic philosophy and presiding over a GOP-controlled Legislature (and isn’t that a foregone conclusion?) — with an annual budget deficit as far as the eye can see along with the cutbacks and privations that are its handmaidens. And that affects us all, especially the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, the disabled, the poor.
They say we get the leaders we deserve, and never has that been more sadly true than in the Age of Jindal. Because this one’s on us.
We’ve known since at least halfway through his first term that Jindal’s ambitions are national. Yet in October 2011, 66 percent of us voted to re-elect him governor; the runner-up got 18 percent in a crowded field. No fellow Republican dared challenge him.
A relatively progressive parish, Lafayette awarded him 59 percent of the vote in 2007 and amplified its misbegotten faith four years later with 71 percent. Raise your hand if you’re having buyer’s remorse.
Jindal is what he is — a craven, calculating politician whose national ambitions have long clouded his judgment and retarded his ability or willingness to actually govern to the benefit of Louisiana. But what have we voters given him but opportunity, acquiescence and sheepish representatives and senators?
As our highways and bridges buckle and heave, a quarter million working poor are deprived of health insurance through Medicaid expansion; as our coast is sliced to ribbons and dissolves into the Gulf; even as we slog along as one of the poorest, dumbest, sickest, most chemically dependent, violent and incarcerated states in the Union, we elect ideologues like Jindal. We let the good times roll, pop open another Coors Lite and urge our young expatriates to “Come Home, Louisiana!” Come home to what?
It’s become almost a bipartisan statement of fact that Jindal has been the most fiscally irresponsible governor in modern Louisiana history, and that’s saying something. He squandered a $1 billion-plus surplus left behind by Gov. Kathleen Blanco. And he has played a shell game with the state budget since the revenue generated via hurricane recovery and the federal stimulus plan dried up, using onetime revenue for recurring expenses, assuming revenue projections will meet or exceed spending commitments — they rarely do — and then raiding pots of money with other programs’ names on the lid to patch up the budget; tossing around tax incentives and credits like meth in a trailer park, selling off state assets and quashing rebellious lawmakers who dare question him.
All of these failings by Jindal gather along a general fault line: his political ambitions above the fourth floor of the state Capitol and his stubborn refusal to even consider tax hikes or other measures that, while making the budget realistically sustainable, might leave a crack in his armor wide enough for a Scott Walker or Chris Christie to plunge in a dagger. Bobby Jindal will say with a straight face in a presidential primary debate next year that he never raised a tax during his time as governor. He can’t say he’s been a responsible steward of state finances. Not with a straight face. Oh, what am I saying? He’ll say it with a straight face and he’ll blame falling oil prices and the “liberal media” for everything.
Bobby Jindal doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we elected him, and we’ve elected the lawmakers who have enabled him.
And the long-term damage Jindal and the Legislature have done to Louisiana is our legacy as voters.
This is acutely true with our colleges and universities, which teeter on the brink of collapse after $700 million in cuts over the last several years. State support for higher education is at its lowest per capita level in more than 50 years.
With an anticipated budget gap of more than $1.6 billion for the 2015-16 fiscal year beginning in July — not to mention a shiny, new $103 million hole in this year’s budget thanks to falling oil prices, according to the Revenue Estimating Conference’s Jan. 26 findings — the administration has already told higher education officials to brace for yet another round of cuts, possibly as high as $400 million. Higher ed and health care services are typically the first to face the budget sledgehammer because so many other programs’ funding sources are constitutionally protected, which we’ll get to later. (State-administered health services, which like higher ed are not protected in the state constitution, could face up to $400 million in cuts.)
The Times-Picayune reported in mid-January that reductions of that magnitude would likely close entire institutions, namely smaller universities and campuses within the community and technical college system like Nicholls or Northwestern State and satellite campuses of the South Louisiana Community College System. “The magnitude of cuts being discussed for higher education could mean between 40 to 60 percent reductions of base funding for institutions in a single year,” Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, told The Times-Pic. “I do feel that all of our universities are critically needed for their regional economies and, especially, to meet the demands for workforce.”
What would become of cities like Thibodaux or Natchitoches if their local universities were shuttered or severely, irrevocably crippled?
Close to home at inarguably the biggest economic driver in Acadiana, UL Lafayette, the situation is dire. UL officials are keeping a stiff upper lip, as they typically do, in large part to maintain morale within the instructional ranks. But our UL could be asked to absorb up to $20 million of the overall cuts.
How could Martin Hall conceivably eat a $20 million budget cut? We don’t know. Martin Hall doesn’t know exactly; sources tell us officials there are taking a wait-and-see approach — waiting until Jindal releases his executive budget some time this month to see what the actual cuts are — and running worst-case scenarios through administration circles.
Nearly a third of the non-instructional staff are civil service employees, and a large chunk of the professor ranks is tenured; those jobs can’t be cut immediately — certainly not quickly enough to deal with a $20 million budget reduction.
But something will have to give, and it will be programs, courses, technology and adjunct staff, not to mention UL’s ability to recruit top students who increasingly see higher education in Louisiana as a low priority in a state with its priorities way the hell out of whack.
Jindal can say he’s never raised a tax, and that’s technically true but practically a load of bull because college students and their families are being forced to subsidize his budgetary chicanery through skyrocketing tuition costs and the debilitating student loan debt that goes with them. Tuition at UL Lafayette has risen an astonishing 55 percent over the last five years, increases that coincide precisely with state-mandated budget cuts. It’s nauseating, but it’s ultimately we voters jabbing a finger down our throat and forcing the gag reflex via our selections at the ballot box.
The malaise Bobby Jindal is visiting on UL Lafayette has been enabled by the Legislature, and within the Lafayette delegation three members — Reps. Joel Robideaux and Nancy Landry, and Sen. Page Cortez — have mostly marched lock-step with the governor. A CPA, attorney and furniture store owner, respectively, they are nice, conscientious people in our view. But in their acquiescence to Jindal’s politicized management of state finances, can we say they are without blame for what’s happened and will happen soon to UL?
Robideaux was elected to the House in 2003 and is in his third and final term, the latter two of which have been concurrent with Jindal’s terror reign. Cortez was elected in 2007, the same year as Jindal, and his two terms so far — 2008-2011 in the House and 2012 to current in the Senate — have spanned Jindal’s. Landry’s first term began in January 2009 after winning a special election the year before, so she’s off the hook for Jindal’s first year in office, which in terms of far-reaching negative effects on the Louisiana budget was a doozy.
Louisiana was flush with cash when Jindal was inaugurated in January 2008. Federal hurricane money had been flowing in for two full years, since the aftermaths of Katrina and Rita, along with insurance money. Folks were making lots of purchases at Home Depot and hiring contractors. The economy was robust. The budget surplus was north of $1 billion. And what did Jindal and the Legislature do? They agreed to raise the annual spending cap by — wait for it! — $1 billion, and they agreed to a partial repeal of the Stelly Plan.
Remember the Stelly Plan? Passed by voters in 2002 and named for its architect, now-retired Rep. Vic Stelly of Lake Charles, it abolished the state sales tax on food, prescription drugs and some utilities and raised income taxes on upper middle class and wealthy taxpayers. While it was revenue-neutral in terms of the state budget, it helped lower-income Louisiana residents, who pay a bigger share of their income on basic necessities like food and utilities.
But those upper-income taxpayers, the folks who write checks to politicians, didn’t like it, and in 2008 the Legislature voted unanimously to move tax rates back to pre-Stelly levels. But they didn’t reprise the state sales taxes. Jindal initially opposed a Stelly repeal, as did the editorial boards of most major newspapers in the state. The Public Affairs Research Council warned that shifting away from relying on income taxes to buttress the budget would make the state reliant on oil and gas revenue and lead to the very boom-and-bust cycles we’ve been in for the last several years.
But with public sentiment turning in favor of repeal and with the White House glimmering on some distant hill — Common Core anyone? — our new governor decided he could not brook reinstating taxes of any sort. (Remember Jindal in 2011 even vetoed the renewal of a tax on tobacco products that had expired. A renewal ferkrisake!) The result was a $358 million drop in state revenue for the next fiscal year and hundreds of millions less in revenue every year since. Reps. Robideaux and Cortez, politicians Lafayette elected, voted for the Stelly repeal. (Read their defense of their records in the sidebar.)
Since 2009, when the Stelly repeal and increased spending cap began to have debilitating effects on the budget and led to the cuts that have so eviscerated higher ed and health care, Cortez, Landry and Robideaux have voted yea on House Bill 1 — save for Landry’s 2012 no vote — the massive state budget that, after all the wrangling and horse trading that goes into a legislative session, is the final arbiter of what programs get funded and those that must be cut.
A study conducted a few years ago estimated that each student at UL Lafayette has a $20,000 annual impact on the local economy. Students buy stuff, pay rent, go to movies. As Jindal, the Legislature and ultimately voters who elected them push our university to the precipice, we push the Acadiana economy there with it. UL has been remarkably resilient through the cuts, even growing its enrollment by about 5 percent over the past five years. But ingenuity and flexibility have their limits.
So have Cortez, Robideaux and Landry been good stewards of an annual budget that has propped up Jindal’s political aspirations at the expense of our university and so many other vital programs? Can they look the administration at UL in the eye and say, “We’ve had your back”?
There’s a lot our lawmakers can do over the remaining year of the Jindal misadventure to restore some common sense and fairness to state finances. They will not do these things, but they should.
$ The Legislature can vote to temporarily suspend the scores of tax breaks and credits the state bestows on business, many of which are headquartered out of state, and Jindal couldn’t do a thing about it. Truth be told, he’s probably secretly wishing it would happen because it would pull his rear a little out of the fryer as he ramps up his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Temporarily suspending those corporate tax breaks would bring in many millions of dollars in revenue. They would be temporary, yes, but could alleviate some of the pain facing our universities in the short term while giving Jindal cover on his “no tax” ideology. Revenue gained from temporary suspensions of tax breaks to business would be considered one-time money, and it would take a two-thirds vote in the House to agree to use it for a recurring expense — higher ed — but faced with the closure of campuses, the pressure would be great to plug the additional revenue into the budget.
$ Raise the gas tax. At an average of just over 38 cents per gallon, Louisiana’s is one of the lowest in the country, where the U.S. average is more than 49 cents. Gasoline is cheap right now. This would raise a lot of revenue without much economic pain for motorists.
$ Restore the Stelly Plan. Louisiana’s upper income earners are doing just fine. They can pay more.
$ Speaking of which, address Louisiana’s regressive tax policy. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the bottom 20 percent of Louisiana families pay 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes, as do the 20 percent above them. The top 1 percent, however, pay just 4.2 percent, and the 4 percent beneath them pay only 5.4 percent. Even uber-conservative columnist Quin Hillyer called this “bassackwards.” Restoring the Stelly Plan would do much of the heavy lifting.
$ Revisit constitutional protections on program funding. Almost every year, Louisiana voters are presented with a slew of constitutional amendments to consider, many of which enshrine in state law protections against programs’ funding being tapped for other needs. Last November voters statewide elected to add the Medical Assistance Trust Fund and the Hospital Stabilization Fund to a growing list. And as the number of protected funds grows, unshielded areas like higher education and health care become ever more vulnerable to cuts. (This newspaper urged readers to vote against those two amendments last year for that very reason.)
$ Expand Medicaid. If Jindal vetoes it, hold an override session and push it through. Billions in federal money would flow into Louisiana at almost no short-term cost to the state, and the benefit — giving a quarter million working poor families access to preventive health care instead of emergency rooms after they’re sick — would far outweigh the negligible cost. This is a moral issue too, but let’s not go there.
$ Stop using one-time money for recurring expenses. This is the most irresponsible practice the governor and state lawmakers have used for several years now to get the budget balanced. Selling state property or using legal settlements — money available in a given fiscal year that won’t be there the next — to fund expenses that never go away is voodoo economics. Of course, the use of one-time money on recurring expenses will continue to be catnip for lawmakers as long as none of the above recommendations is undertaken, and it might prove to be unavoidable in the short term given our dire fiscal straits.
We don’t like piling on Cortez, Landry and Robideaux.
We’ve no doubt they’re well-meaning, and other lawmakers in the Lafayette delegation elected since Jindal came in have also voted for HB1, but none with the water-carrying consistency of the three Republicans.
The fact is, we’re headed toward bequeathing our grandchildren a state with a higher education system that is greatly diminished — in academic achievement, in research and funding, in prestige — along with Third World transportation infrastructure and a poor and working-class population that is one slipped disc or broken radiator away from economic devastation. And it’s our choices at the ballot box that have gotten us here.
Decrease in state support per student for higher education in Louisiana, 2008-2014 — the biggest drop in the U.S.; the average decrease in higher ed support per student over the same period among the states was about $2,000, with only Alaska ($636) and North Dakota ($3,150) increasing spending.
(Source: Illinois State University’s annual Grapevine Report, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association)
Percent increase in undergraduate tuition at UL Lafayette, fall 2010 to fall 2014, from $2,213 to $3,436
It Could Have Been Worse
“The fact is, the struggle over the last six years has been keeping higher education from being cut even more than it was,” Rep. Nancy Landry says in an email response to The IND seeking her take on what has transpired under the Jindal administration.
That’s a common refrain — that the cuts to higher ed and health care could have been much worse — among the three members of the Lafayette legislative delegation we’ve focused on for this news analysis.
“With regard to cuts to higher education, we are tasked with crafting a budget based on forecasts from economic experts,” says Rep. Joel Robideaux, the dean of the delegation. “During many of the Jindal years, the forecasts required reductions in spending.”
Robideaux points to the loss of federal hurricanerecovery money, which created robust economic activity, and the end of funding from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, AKA President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan, as major contributors to the budget woes of the last several years.
But he defends his vote to repeal the Stelly Plan, pointing out that changes to it that have had an adverse effect on the budget actually occurred in the 2007 session pre-Jindal.
“During that 2007 legislative session, Louisiana’s middle class made their voices heard loud and clear that the Stelly Plan was far from revenue neutral as had been billed,” he says.
Although she didn’t vote on repealing Stelly — Landry went to Baton Rouge following victory in a 2008 special election to replace Rep. Don Trahan — she echoes Robideaux’s sentiments: “Constituents in my district overwhelmingly supported repeal of Stelly,” she says. “Many felt duped because it was supposed to be revenue neutral.”
In terms of generating revenue, Stelly was in fact neutral, shifting the burden from sales taxes to income taxes. Few notice a few pennies saved here and a nickle saved there on grocery bills — savings that cumulatively add up — but everyone notices when their state income tax bill jumps.
Cortez seems a little more torn about his vote to repeal Stelly: “Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20,” he says. “At that time did I have any regrets in repealing some personal income taxes? No, I didn’t have any regrets at the time because, with all of the revenue we had coming in and these surpluses in back-to-back years, I didn’t have a problem repealing income taxes or pulling back on the income tax.”
The senator says he now wishes the Legislature had sent the Stelly Plan back to voters, whom he believes would have elected to repeal it. But that repeal would have reinstated those sales taxes, sparing state finances hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue over the intervening years.
Robideaux says he wishes lawmakers had set aside some of the money from those surpluses early in the Jindal years.
“Don’t get me wrong, we did a lot of good with those surplus dollars — deferred maintenance for higher ed, road and bridge repairs, payments toward the pension system’s unfunded accrued liabilities, etc.,” he notes. “But a portion could have been set aside for the exact situation we now face.” — WP