By Robert Mann
“A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.” – Adlai E. Stevenson II
There are days I wish that David Vitter were governor. It’s not that the Republican U.S. senator would be a better chief executive than John Bel Edwards, the man who trounced Vitter last November. It’s that I’d love to watch Vitter and Republican legislators try to clean up the fiscal disaster that former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal left behind.
A Republican governor and a Republican House populated with erstwhile Jindal collaborators – all explaining to us all why we must raise taxes and eliminate corporate exemptions – would be sweet justice. And, trust me, Vitter and GOP legislators would hike taxes. In fact, they would propose almost exactly what Edwards has since taking office in January because it’s the only way to fix the state’s fiscal mess without shuttering universities and depriving people of life-saving medical services.
Vitter, spared the indignity of proposing tax hikes, is safely back in the U.S. Senate, serving the final months of his two terms and plotting his transition to lobbying.
In losing, Vitter probably won, even if the lobbyist gig isn’t as lucrative as he hopes. That’s because, in winning, Edwards inherited a dreadful $2 billion budget shortfall for the 2016-17 fiscal year. In the recent special fiscal session, he and lawmakers whittled that down, employing a mix of budget cuts and tax increases. But the shortfall is still a forbidding $600 million.
Now that Edwards wants to eliminate the remaining shortfall in a June special session, Republican lawmakers who would be tripping over themselves to accommodate Vitter are, instead, happy to watch Democrat Edwards grapple alone with the disaster that many of them helped create.
If some Republican lawmakers’ willingness to put party and rigid ideology ahead of the state’s best interests was ever in doubt, that was settled when some prominent Republican legislators insisted that the state has no real revenue shortage. Rather, they say, supposedly bloated state government departments must cut more.
“We need more revenue, but I’ve not heard much conversation about efficiencies and how we can do things structurally different,” Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, told The Advocate.
“Is it fair for us to go into a special session without the tools of knowing what spending efficiencies and effectiveness we should have in place?” Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, asked.
Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is the leading opponent of a special session. At one point, Henry seriously suggested balancing the budget by, among other things, slashing the state’s tourism promotion budget.
The head of the state’s top business lobby, Stephen Waguespack of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, also opposes a special session. “The Legislature needs to do its due diligence to shift the proposed budget reductions to areas of lower priority, where funding may not be needed until the latter half of the fiscal year,” said Waguespack, Jindal’s former chief of staff, describing something that sounds suspiciously like check kiting.
This would all be quite comical if it weren’t for the dire consequences of all the denial and blame shifting. For eight years, many of Edwards’ detractors enabled Jindal by supporting his irresponsible fiscal policies. These latter-day fiscal conservatives undermined the state’s tax base by slashing income taxes and lavishing business with obscene tax breaks. They raided state trust funds. They stuffed the budget with almost a billion in one-time funding. They gutted higher education and encouraged skyrocketing tuition and fees. They were silent as Jindal turned over the state’s charity hospitals to private enterprises that have probably not, as promised, saved money.
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