By Robert Mann
After eight years of enabling then-Gov. Bobby Jindal as he mismanaged Louisiana’s budget process, isn’t it remarkable that some prominent Republicans in the Legislature have suddenly grown a backbone? Apparently, the gestation period for valor among certain Louisiana lawmakers is precisely eight years – and birth occurs only when a Democrat is governor.
To briefly recap, Jindal slashed taxes on upper-income taxpayers and gave away generous tax exemptions to various industries. He shifted the burden for much of that lost revenue onto college students by cutting their schools’ budgets and raising their tuition. Faced with enormous deficits, Jindal wouldn’t consider the slightest tax hike. Instead, he stuffed his budgets with embarrassing amounts of one-time money from every trust fund he could pilfer or every state asset he could peddle.
In 2008, Jindal inherited a budget surplus of almost a billion dollars. Eight years later, he left his successor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, a mid-year budget shortfall of about $750 million and a shortfall of almost $2 billion for the next fiscal year.
For much of Jindal’s two terms, GOP lawmakers rarely opposed Jindal – and when they did, their protests were often halfhearted and brief. Most legislators knew Jindal and his aides were selling them phony numbers, but they passed his budgets anyway. As he decimated funding for universities, they did little beyond approving tuition increases (by 66 percent since 2008).
Last year, Jindal’s budget mess threatened Louisiana higher education and public health care. So, legislators sensibly did what they could to raise revenue to keep Louisiana’s schools and hospitals open (for only half the fiscal year, it turns out).
Now, many of these lawmakers have not only found their voice and independent spirit; they have also been born again as unrelenting fiscal conservatives. Many of these intrepid souls insist the problem can be – must be – solved with budget cuts alone.
Although he offers no specifics about what should be should cut, Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, said recently that he would reject “a budget that raises taxes on Louisiana families or businesses. Despite what some in Baton Rouge may think, we cannot tax our way out of this hole.” Hollis arrived in the Legislature in 2012, so he may have missed the news that almost $1 billion in income tax cuts(bipartisan legislation that his party supported in 2007 and 2008) is partly, if not largely, responsible for Louisiana’s revenue shortfall.
Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, is even more pugnacious – and arrogant – in her determination to resist tax increases. “We don’t need concessions,” she told a gathering in Baton Rouge recently. “We won.”
Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, also opposes any tax increases. Unlike Hollis and Hodges, however, Henry has an idea about where lawmakers should cut – higher education. “Though higher ed general fund dollars have been cut a little bit,” Henry said recently, “they’ve matched those with self-generated tuition increases and some fees.”
Henry is badly misinformed. He and his colleagues cut higher education substantially. For example, in 2009, the total of direct state appropriations and tuition to LSU was $797 million. In 2016, it is $691 million. At LSU alone, 363 teaching jobs (almost 8 percent of the faculty) were eliminated; another 1,561 staff members were laid off or not replaced. But Henry thinks LSU and other universities need deeper cuts?
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