At the moment, only four days remain in the legislative session. Time enough to do harm, time enough to do good-and perhaps time enough to add a bit more to the record level of state spending. The voters who pay attention to the legislative process will probably focus on two things in the 2006 Regular Session: The first is the record budget headed for the governor's desk; the second is the ethanol mandate that will likely hit them in their wallets.
The 2006/2007 state budget is bursting at the seams with money. Some of it is one-time federal funding for hurricane recovery. Much of it, though, is pork barrel spending gone wild. After years of battling to eliminate, reduce or restrict the infamous urban and rural slush funds, the battle is won, but the war is lost. The governor and Legislature can truthfully say that the urban and rural funds have been removed from the budget. Unfortunately, that was done with a wink and a promise-the promise being that all of the prior slush funds-and much, much more-are now simply incorporated into the body of the appropriations bill. Once again, reform was an illusion as our state officials doled out the dollars to those who would toe the line-and there were lots of toes on the line this year.
The ethanol issue was still being written in the last days of the session. After both chambers of the Legislature passed bills mandating that 2 percent of motor fuels produced in Louisiana contain an ethanol or bio-diesel blend, the media began to focus their reporting on the potential cost to the consumers if the legislation became law. Pressure mounted on Governor Blanco to stand up for consumers and veto the legislation, but she chose to sign it instead. She said she had the assurances of Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom that his yet unwritten regulations would not allow the mandate to go into effect if the bio-fuels mandated in the bill would increase costs to consumers.
The Legislature-stung by angry consumer responses to the media stories about higher prices-sought to amend other legislation to force Commissioner Odom to keep his promise. Odom opposed a House amendment that would have prevented the mandate from taking place until the cost of the bio-fuel blends were within one cent of the price of regular fuels at the pump. As the session drew to a close, there was an effort underway to keep the mandate in abeyance until the price of the bio-fuels got within five cents of regular fuel. While better than the original legislation signed by the governor, the new approach would still likely result in a significant cost increase for consumers-including farmers.
There was an occasional bright spot in the session. For example, legislation passed that prevents business owners from being hit with a crushing $700 million unemployment compensation tax assessment to pay off the huge drain on the U.C. Trust Fund caused by the two hurricanes. Fortunately, our Trust Fund was the most solvent in the country going into the storms, and we have the money in it to take care of the problem-only because the business community stopped the Legislature from raiding the fund in years past.
Money, as usual, was the main theme in the 2006 Regular Session. Lots of it was spent, and some of that spending may come back to haunt the spenders very soon. Unfortunately, our state officials, like children grabbing for candy from a pinata, are too preoccupied to worry about the future.