Legislators keep distance from Governor’s ideas
Feeling some public pressure to show he’s doing something about the state’s looming budget crisis, Gov. Bobby Jindal held a series of well-photographed Mansion meetings with higher education leaders, healthcare providers and K-12 officials. Attendees later said the talks wandered somewhat and resolved nothing, but, for the governor, the words mattered less than the pictures, of reasonable leaders cordially discussing solutions.
The tableau was not repeated when legislative leaders came over for a sit-down last week. The legislators were glad to be invited in early to talk money, compared to the little input they had the past two budget years.
But they balked at being part of another photo opportunity. After a private meeting, they made for the exit, leaving the governor to stand alone before the cameras in the Mansion’s cavernous stairway foyer.
Alone before the cameras is normally how Jindal likes it. But it seemed this time he would have preferred some company while he outlined his new far-reaching, even far-fetched proposals for down-sizing the deficit, if not government.
The governor suggested over $800 million could be raised, half of next year’s projected deficit, by selling off a number of state office buildings and two prisons and leasing them back; privatizing an insurance plan for state employees; and selling part of future lottery proceeds.
Small wonder the lawmakers skedaddled rather than appear to have the governor’s back on those ideas. Senate President Joel Chaisson diplomatically responded that the concepts needed more study, but House Speaker Jim Tucker doubted they could be realized in time to help this budget year.
Other legislators were less reserved, calling the potential sale of assets unwise and short-sighted. Treasurer John Kennedy could not resist having it so nicely teed up for him: “It’s like the junkie selling the television set and radio to generate money for his next fix.”
The governor himself emphasized these were just starting points for evaluation, especially the notion of selling state buildings. “Tiger Stadium is not for sale,” he reassured. (Actually, some think it has been already, since the Tiger Athletic Foundation controls all the good seats.)
The skeptical distance lawmakers are keeping from the governor’s out-of-the-box thinking is also seen in their response to formal budget proposals from the administration.
Last week, Senate Finance committee members rejected the administration’s plan for mid-year rate reductions to healthcare providers in order to close a shortfall in the Medicaid program. The administration intends to go ahead with the cuts anyway, which could draw a legal challenge.
Last month, another set of legislators steered back to local school districts $79 million in federal funds that the administration tried to put aside for next year’s budget.
This pre-holiday discord might make one despair for reasoned solutions to the fiscal dilemma. But it’s actually much better, much healthier to start arguing now, instead of in the last days of the legislative session.
They will be arguing then too, abut may have dispensed with the more cockamamie ideas instead of turning to them in desperation in the end.
The normally compliant Legislature is showing more independence from the governor and more resistance to his plans to balance the budget. But with that comes its share of responsibility for offering fiscal answers.
Most legislators are adamant, as is the governor, about not raising taxes or suspending exemptions, but they also don’t like Jindal’s proposals for mid-year Medicaid cuts or use of education funds. They have been more vague, if not silent, about where and how they would make their own deep spending reductions while maintaining acceptable levels of public services.
The governor might be ready to give them that chance to shine. For his part, having a $1.6 billion hole in the next budget would seem a fine time for greater legislative independence.
Once the governor presents a balanced budget in March, with or without his fire-sale proposals, he could step away and let lawmakers reshape it however they like, take ownership of it, and also the heat for it. By then, he might be the one eager to stay out of the picture.
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