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|Jindal's toughest test yet|
The 2009 regular legislative session will force Bobby Jindal to endure the toughest test of his brief tenure as governor.
Thus far, that is.
The fun, or the test, begins Monday when the Legislature convenes its regular session, which must focus on fiscal matters only since this is an odd-numbered year. Ever since voters passed a constitutional amendment several years ago, which called on the Legislature to deal with money matters only in odd-numbered years, it's been smooth sailing on the fiscal front. That's been the case because the state – for all practical purposes – had enough money to please everyone.
That's not the case, though, in 2009.
Thanks to a drop in oil prices – which sparked a decline in severance taxes the state collects from the oil and gas industry – a $1.3-billion budget shortfall looms heading into the 2009-2010 fiscal year. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
A slowdown in the oil patch isn't the only issue, or problem, that's factoring into the state's money woes. Corporate tax collections have declined while sales tax collections have turned south, too, amid a global recession.
It's not a pretty picture, but it's manageable.
Months ago, Jindal outlined deep cuts in state spending to bring expenditures in line with revenues for the 2009-10 fiscal year. The proposed cuts included less money for education and health care. Other state agencies were asked to make do with less, too.
As expected, the education community and people associated with health care in Louisiana cried foul. They say Jindal's proposed budget cuts are unconscionable, and they want the Legislature to buck him.
To some degree, the education and health care communities are correct, meaning it makes little sense to slash spending on programs or institutions that educate people and provide heath care for them as well.
What's the alternative?
That's the big question no one seems to eager to answer, though the answer to that question is crystal clear.
Instead of crucifying education and health care, the Legislature should exercise its constitutional authority by cutting state spending on all fronts. And yes, the Legislature has the authority to reign in spending without leveling the lion's share of any budget cuts on the backs of education and health care.
In the meantime, the education community – particularly higher ed – should stop immediately its attempts to blame the state's fiscal problems on the so-called tax cuts the Legislature enacted last year.
Remember, state lawmakers in 2008 rolled back some of the income tax hikes the Legislature ushered onto the scene earlier in the decade. Those income tax hikes were named after the state representative who sponsored them, Vic Stelly. That's how we came to know the "Stelly Plan."
What the folks opposed to the income tax cuts haven't acknowledged is that the people – the taxpayers – won't realize any benefits from the tax cuts until after July 1 of this year and possibly not until May 2010.
Though the state will lose revenue in the short-term from the tax cuts lawmakers approved in 2008, it is disingenuous to point a finger at the roll back in "Stelly" to find fault for the fiscal woes the state will experience in the new fiscal year. After all, it is within reason to say state government doesn't have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem.
Throughout the regular session, though, Jindal will encounter a Legislature that's still smarting over his veto in 2008 of a bill that granted a pay raise for state lawmakers.
If you don't remember, you can bet a mortgage payment the Legislature remembers it, and you can bet another mortgage payment the Legislature will even the score with Jindal if the opportunity presents itself.
Haggling over budget cuts and prioritizing state spending will present more than one opportunity for lawmakers to get even with Jindal, or hand him the toughest challenge he's faced since assuming office some 15 months ago.
Playing fast and loose with budget cuts and expenditures for state services the people rely upon is amateurish. So is lying about income tax cuts as they relate to higher education.
That's politics, though.
It's called governing, too.
And they're intertwined, whether we like it or not.