The mysterious case of the missing budget cuts

By Robert Mann

To paraphrase Groucho Marx: They may talk like charlatans and look like charlatans. But don’t let that fool you. They really are charlatans.

How long have Republican leaders in the Louisiana Legislature assured us the state’s budget could be balanced — mostly or entirely — by spenSnake-oilding cuts? Their obsession with cuts is one reason so many of them voted to bring the recent fiscal special session crashing down. They have attacked Gov. John Bel Edwards, suggesting state government is plagued by massive amounts of waste and abuse.

They’ve been preaching this specious sermon for years.

“If you can control government spending, then we don’t have to have these conversations over and over and over again,” Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said last month.

“Government needs to be as efficient and as lean as possible,” Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, said. “Additional revenue is a last resort. There are other ways to balance the budget other than imposing taxes on citizens who live and work in this state.”

Screenshot 2018-03-09 07.30.51“My constituents are asking me, from questionnaires I send out, to reduce waste and government spending,” Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, said.

These comments appear to reflect how most Republicans in the state House think. There’s only one problem — and it exposes them as hypocrites, at best, or con artists, at worst. These lawmakers have never identified the cuts they say the governor should make to close the $700 million budget shortfall that will remain when $1 billion in temporary taxes expire on June 30.

It’s not that they lack the manpower to find those cuts, if they exist. Hundreds of legislative staff members could scour the budget for them. They also have the reports of various management experts the state has paid millions over the years to find additional cuts and efficiencies (most of which were adopted long ago).

And, yet, despite bleating about how Edwards should trim the budget before proposing new revenue to support health care, higher education and other critical programs, Republicans have never produced the cuts.

The most-charitable view is they haven’t bothered to look. Less-charitable is that the cuts aren’t there, and they know it. The least-charitable view — and the one that seems obvious — is that this is all about ensuring Edwards’ defeat next year.

That is not only my view, but that of several prominent House Republicans, including Barry Ivey of Baton Rouge, who confessedrecently: “We don’t want a Democrat (governor) to get re-elected, and we don’t want to give him a political win by doing tax reform. That was something that was told to me (by party leaders). We placed politics ahead of our constituents. We should all be ashamed.”

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Why are Louisiana universities so powerless in Baton Rouge?

By Robert Mann

How did it come to this sad state in Louisiana higher education? How could venerable institutions with hundreds of thousands of graduates and more than 200,000 students prove so powerless at the state Capitol? Why have these schools — with their amazing students, brilliant faculty and gifted administrators — been unable to persuade lawmakers to increase their budgets or, at least, guarantee them long-term budget stability?

Long ago, when I worked at the Capitol, I would hear rumblings about trimming LSU’s funding. That talk never went anywhere because of the assumption that if the governor or the Legislature messed with LSU, its students, faculty and alumni would descend upon them with pitchforks waving and torches blazing.

State leaders, fearful of the roar of the LSU tiger, instead gave the school and other state universities ample funding. Then, in 2008, Bobby Jindal became governor and we learned that the Fighting Tigers were really paper tigers.

As Jindal and lawmakers attacked state universities and slashed their funding, nothing much happened in response. The alumni associations and university foundations did not organize their members to descend on the Capitol to fight the cuts. There were some scattered protests by students and faculty, but the cuts happened anyway.

Then-LSU Chancellor Mike Martin spoke up about the way Jindal was hurting his university. Jindal’s staff dressed him down and later ran him out of town. Others lost their jobs for speaking out. Soon, the message was clear: Keep quiet and go along or we’ll fire you or cut your budget even more.

With that, Jindal’s path was largely unimpeded. He and Republican lawmakers intimidated, attacked and undermined higher education leaders during this eight-year reign of terror. They did so because, as they began, few people stood up to their bullying in a forceful and effective way.

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Louisiana’s fiscal woes distract us and obscure what really ails us

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By Robert Mann

No reasonable, informed person would question the need for the current special session of the Louisiana Legislature. The consequences of losing vital state services — the result of $1 billion in expiring, temporary taxes — would be devastating.

This is a crisis. It’s as if our house is burning and the priority is to extinguish the flames and save the structure. An extended discussion about whether to renovate the house or build a new one must wait until the fire is out.

The problem is, in Louisiana, the budget flames never die.

The perennial impasse over the state’s budget — we have had 18 regular or special legislative sessions since 2008 — has distracted Louisiana’s leaders from other serious issues. It’s crippling us. And it’s robbed us of the ability to imagine and create a better state for our people.

Anyone with eyes to see knows Louisiana is suffering. We have so many deep, systemic problems that it seems our leaders don’t know where to start. The worse news is that, because of the never-ending fiscal crisis, they cannot summon the resources or energy to tackle the problems that plague our people.

Indulge me another analogy: Louisiana is like a patient with a chronic respiratory disease. Every week, he sees a doctor, who struggles to restore or improve his breathing. He prescribes new drugs. He puts him in new therapies. In his conversations with this suffering patient, the doctor spends 90 percent of his time talking about his labored breathing.

Louisiana is like that patient. We are so focused on the immediate — and justified — need to keep revenue flowing into the state’s coffers that we never have a serious, sustained discussion about the chronic problems that sap our state of its ability to thrive and survive.

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Was anyone really surprised when Amazon snubbed Louisiana for its new HQ2?

By Robert Mann

Few, if any, at the state Capitol should have been shocked that no Louisiana city was among the 20 finalists for the massive, new second Amazon.com headquarters, also known as HQ2. The $6.56 billion in tax incentives state Economic Development officials offered could not persuade the company to bring its 50,000 employees here.

Imagine a mountain of money that tall being insufficient to overcome a state’s colossal economic and social problems. I would love to read the assessment on Louisiana that Amazon’s site selection consultant prepared for the company’s brass. I suspect it might look something like this:

MEMO

To: Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO

From: The Site Selection Team

Reg: Louisiana’s Bid for HQ2

Louisiana has offered an impressive incentive package, hoping to lure us to the Bayou State. While it enjoys many natural resources (including the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River) and a vibrant and diverse culture, Louisiana is among the least desirable locations in the nation.

In Politico’s recent annual assessment of the states, Louisiana finished last for the second year in a row, based on its cumulative poor rankings in the following categories: per capita income, unemployment, poverty, home ownership, high school graduates, life expectancy at birth and infant mortality. For all the reasons discussed below, we cannot recommend locating this facility in Louisiana.

Economy: There is almost nothing about Louisiana’s economy that is attractive to a company like Amazon. Louisiana has one of the nation’s worst business environments, and its economic growth is among the most anemic. It has some of the lowest economic opportunity and ranks poorly in gender equality. Its worker environment is last among the states. Only one state has a higher poverty rate.

In WalletHub’s recent ranking of the most innovative states, only two — Mississippi and West Virginia — were considered worse. It’s among the least hospitable places for working moms and working dads and is also one of the worst states for millennials. It is the least financially literate state.

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Why stop at work requirements for food stamps and health care? Let’s go all the way.

By Robert Mann

I’m fed up with lazy, poor families who mooch off industrious citizens and waste our hard-earned tax dollars. I agree with Sen. John Kennedy: They aren’t entitled to health care through the state’s Medicaid system.

Unemployment and laziness shouldn’t be rewarded. Let them get sick or injured and, if they survive, they’ll better understand the value of work. After the heart disease passes, they will apply the lessons they’ve learned as they rush out to find a job.

If the worst happens, at least their orphaned children will have learned a valuable lesson: The only way society should treat you as a human being worthy of life is if you are employed.

And I agree with Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge: If the poor won’t work, they don’t deserve food assistance. Going hungry for a few weeks will not only encourage mom and dad to get up and work; the malnutrition and hunger pains should also teach the kids a lesson they won’t forget.

It’s just like Jesus said when he fed the hungry multitude: “Those with a job get a fish and a loaf.”

These humane, sensible policies have inspired me to propose some additional reforms:

Why should taxpayers educate children of parents who don’t work? Let’s begin each school year by turning away all children whose parents are unemployed. Forcing mom and dad to homeschool them will teach the kids the value of a job.

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The Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics, 2017

By Robert Mann

“I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”  — Jonathan Swift

It was a year that shame forgot. Sure, that might describe most years in Louisiana politics, but events of 2017 seem particularly shameless and worthy of disdain. Maybe it’s the Trump Affect, a malady which afflicts some politicians and causes the sudden disappearance of self-respect and integrity. That meant the possibilities for distinction in unprincipled political behavior were bottomless — and opportunities for valor plentiful.

Here are the 2017 winners of my annual competition: “The Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics.”

Most Courage: State Reps. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, and Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, two members of the House who tried to stave off the state’s looming “fiscal cliff” — when $1 billion in temporary taxes expire next summer — by proposing a series of modest, practical tax reform measures.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and other leaders ignored many sensible recommendations by the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy. Meanwhile, Stokes and Ivy waged a valiant-but-unsuccessful fight to instill a modicum of fiscal sanity, something out of vogue in Baton Rouge for a decade.

Most Cowardice: The House GOP Caucus, which resisted all efforts to address fiscal reform, stubbornly and dishonestly insisting that, after many years of deep budget reductions, the state’s budget woes can be solved by cuts alone.

“It’s hard to watch Louisiana fall on its face, which is what I do believe we are seeing at the moment,” Stokes observed last June. “Instead of solving our crisis and finding that opportunity, this Legislature has persisted — through three years and six sessions — to simply prolong the crisis.”

Shameless Ambition: U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who sought to burnish his conservative bona fides with a cynical attack on poor working families surviving on meager allotments of food stamps. Graves’ legislation would impose work requirements on those receiving food assistance, although most of them are, in fact, working.

Most Embarrassing Statement: Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, for imploring President Donald Trump to intervene to prevent the removal of Confederate memorials in New Orleans. “I wrote him a letter and I asked him to look out your window, look at the statute of Jackson there at the White House because Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square is next in New Orleans if we don’t do something,” Nungesser said. This was a suggestion too ridiculous and reckless for even Trump.

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What Louisiana’s Nicholls State University and Harvard have in common

By Robert Mann

In Thibodaux, some residents call Nicholls State University “Harvard on the Bayou.” Nicholls is a fine school, but it’s not in Harvard’s (Ivy) league, except in one respect: both are private institutions.

Harvard has been private for centuries. Nicholls, however, became “private” in recent years as the Legislature — after more than a dozen deep budget cuts — set it adrift.

And it’s not only Nicholls. Four other Louisiana universities — Grambling State, Louisiana Tech, McNeese State and Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU) — are “private,” too. In other words, each institution pays the state more in mandated costs — the institution’s contributions to retirement, insurance, unemployment benefits, etc. — than it receives in state appropriations.

Nicholls and the other institutions can eliminate programs and lay off employees. They cannot refuse to pay mandated costs.

On average, 74 cents of each dollar the state sends to Louisiana’s universities is sent back to Baton Rouge. Put another way, the state’s pitiful contribution to most universities barely covers their insurance and retirement payments.

Combine those increasing costs with the collapse of state appropriations and you have a situation in which every state college and university now relies on tuition and fees for the overwhelming majority of its funding.

Louisiana has given up supporting its universities in any meaningful way. We no longer regard educating youth as vital to our state’s future. What little we spend on higher education is seen as an expense, not an investment. We view schools as a burden, not pillars of prosperity.

Note how some state officials describe TOPS, Louisiana’s tuition assistance program. Listen to them talk about it, and you would think the program is devouring the state’s budget. You might never guess this voracious beast — one the Legislature couldn’t “fully” support a year ago — represents only about 3 percent of the state’s general fund.

It’s no wonder, then, Louisiana ranks 48th among the states in educational attainment. In other words, only Mississippi and West Virginia have a smaller percentage of residents with college degrees. This pathetic ranking is no accident. We’ve defunded our universities more and raised tuition and fees more than any other state.

Louisiana has not only abandoned its universities; it’s abandoned many young people. It’s now impossible for many high school graduates from low-income families to attend college. And while lawmakers struggle to fund TOPS — which aids only about a fourth of the state’s college students — they’ve done little for Go Grants, an underfunded program for students from low-income families. Those grants could make a profound difference in the lives of young people who struggle to afford college.

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If you can’t speak out for sick kids, quit calling yourself ‘pro-life’

By Robert Mann

It’s hard to find a government program that does more to save innocent lives than the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP and its Louisiana incarnation, LaCHIP, are shining examples of effective, pro-life government initiatives.

Louisiana’s Republican senators and congressional representatives tell us they are pro-life. But the way they have responded to Congress’ recent failure to renew funding for CHIP suggests they are just pro-birth. Once the kids pop out, they’re on their own.

That’s a fair conclusion based on the conspicuous silence of our delegation after Congress allowed the program to expire Sept. 30. Efforts to renew it for another five years are going nowhere after committees in both houses offered different funding plans. It’s not clear when (or if) Congress will resolve those differences.

The program pays for life-saving health care for 8.9 million young Americans, including 121,000 in Louisiana. Since 2003, because of LaCHIP, the percentage of uninsured Louisiana children has plunged from 11.1 percent to 3.8 percent.

The CHIP program supports a range of health services for children 19 and younger, including primary, preventative and emergency care. It also covers immunizations, prescriptions drugs and hospitalization. It saves lives. This should be the easiest government program to fund. And it was until Republicans in Congress let it expire.

Some states have more resources and, therefore, more time before their money dries up. When the federal portion of CHIP vanishes in February 2018, Louisiana must find an extra $31 million — near the end of a fiscal year — to keep the program alive. That means deep cuts to other vital health care services. And in the years after that, the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals says, Louisiana will need an additional $112 million to continue coverage.

Even if Congress restores funding for CHIP, it’s an outrage that so many families with sick kids are agonizing over whether they might end up buried in medical bills or, worse, be forced to forego life-saving treatment.

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Providing the oil industry with billions in corporate welfare is not Louisiana’s patriotic duty | Robert Mann

By Robert Mann

Louisiana and its politicians have long embraced some unhealthy myths: Corruption in our politics isn’t so bad. Teachers are the real problem with our schools. Poor people are lazy. Climate change is a hoax. Oil is crucial to our economy because it employs so many workers and funds our government.

Few myths have damaged us more than the last one. Our blind allegiance to oil and gas has led to lax or poorly enforced environmental laws. The worst actors in the industry have destroyed our wetlands and poisoned our water.

And our eagerness to subsidize this industry has cost us billions in tax revenue. A 2015 report by the Legislative Auditor found that one exemption from one state tax — the severance tax on horizontal drilling — resulted in the loss of $1.1 billion from 2010 to 2014. Last year, the 27 state tax exemptions Louisiana grants to oil and gas interests amounted to $195 million. In 2012, during the height of the oil boom, the state let slip away $527 million in oil revenue; the following year, $462 million.

Since 2013, Louisiana has absolved one natural gas company, Cameron LNG, of more than $3 billion in property taxes. Since 2010, the state has awarded Cheniere Energy and its subsidiaries more than $3 billion in local and state tax subsidies. And in 2016, Louisiana gave Venture Global LNG $1.86 billion in property tax exemptions.

Total permanent jobs promised by those companies in return for the tax exemptions: about 1,400 (an average of $5.5 million in state and local subsidies per job). Industry officials claim without these generous tax breaks, they cannot afford to do business here.

That might be a stronger argument if energy exploration and refining weren’t already among the most profitable enterprises on Earth. Five of the 12 largest corporations in the world (by revenue) are oil companies, despite the slump in oil prices.

But these corporations provide plenty of good jobs for Louisiana workers, right? “The Louisiana oil and gas industry is one of the leading employers in the state,” the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association claims. The most recent employment numbers on its website — 64,000 — are from 2013, when oil was around $90 a barrel. The American Petroleum Institute (API), meanwhile, claims 291,00 Louisiana workers were employed in the industry in 2015.

The August 2017 report on industry employment from the Louisiana Workforce Development Commission, however, pegs the number working in or supporting oil and gas at about 40,000 or 2 percent of Louisiana’s total workforce. It’s likely the API’s 2015 numbers were wildly inflated. Even Louisiana oil industry lobbyists acknowledge a sharp jobs downturn caused by slumping oil prices.

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Louisiana’s people can handle the truth about their state and its future

By Robert Mann

“How dare you!” a reader scolded me by email after reading my previous column, in which I argue “Louisiana is sick and dying.” She added: “If you have such disdain for this state and this city then get the hell out.”

In September 2016, when I wrote the first draft of what became an elegy for Louisiana, I shelved it. I was afraid I’d be overwhelmed with many such angry responses. I wasn’t certain it was wise to brand an entire state hopeless. Moreover, I wasn’t sure I believed it, having written two years earlier that Louisiana still had hope and that our young people should consider staying to fight for its future.

What prompted me to publish my grim thoughts was reading a remarkable book published last year, “Strangers in Their Own Land.” Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s examination of Louisiana politics and culture through the prism of corrupt and neglectful environmental policies is bracing, depressing and deadly accurate.

If you think my conclusion is grim, you must read Hochschild’s account, not only for its searing indictment of our decades of environmental degradation but also to appreciate the unwillingness (or inability) of so many to recognize and punish the culprits.

Ostensibly, Hochschild wants readers to understand the Trump-loving Tea Party members adrift in a sea of social change and economic disruption. In doing so, she also reinforces my point: Our state is deathly ill, and there is little inclination to do something about it.I was prepared for a fusillade of ferocious responses to my column, very much like the one above. So I was surprised by how many not only agreed with my diagnosis but said they have had similar conversation with friends and families.

“You put into words what I’ve been feeling for a while,” someone told me on Facebook. A Louisiana native, now living in Texas, wrote, “I have often thought of returning and staying because I love it and will always consider it home, but unsure I want to fight a seemingly losing battle.”

By email, a New Orleanian wrote, “As I get older (I’m almost 67), I realize that nothing, NOTHING, is going to change in this place, and it’s profoundly sad.” A state official called to say he agreed with my analysis about our unwillingness to embrace progress and reform. “We just don’t have it in us,” he concluded.

At church last Sunday, a friend greeted me at the door. Her eyes welled up. She and her husband had discussed the same concerns my column addressed, she told me. Their daughter has begun her second year of college in a distant state and won’t return. That’s because the young woman lives in a progressive, diverse and well-functioning community, the likes of which she never experienced here.

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