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GOP must keep free-spending Edwards boxed in

Louisiana’s House of Representatives Republican leadership put the budget ball in Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ court this week – a playing surface Edwards finds contracting in size.

Speaker Taylor Barras transmitted a letter to Edwards outlining GOP caucus demands attached to any revenue-raising package. They include enhanced spending transparency, a change in the expenditure limit calculations, and patient responsibility and work or other requirements for able-bodied adult Medicaid recipients not pregnant, exempting parents of newborns or children with disabilities and people in drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs.

The easier dissemination of expenditures would build upon efforts begun under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, something Edwards should not contest. As for the other issues, expect obfuscation and counterattacks because the realization of Republicans’ goals would separate Edwards too much from his desire to lock in inflated state government.

The current expenditure limit essentially is meaningless, as the Constitution builds it upon past appropriations plus a growth factor based upon personal income averages. As appropriations reflect revenues (of state-generated money minus transfers, higher education fees and tuition, and parish severance tax and royalty distribution), the current level of over $14.6 billion rests hundreds of million of dollars lower, principally because, even as state spending from its own sources hit record levels under Edwards, the substitution of self-generated funds for taxpayer dollars to fund higher education ensures the not breaching the existing limit for some time.

The proposal, if adopted, would slow the growth rate, principally because it would mix in population growth that has not moved much over recent years. In some years it could come up zero, since it also would factor in state-sourced revenue growth. Throwing in a Consumer Price Index average might work to move the limit higher, but, overall, the revamped factors would cause slower growth. This Edwards will fight bitterly, as it reins in his goal of government expansion.

As for the Medicaid changes, he will try to finesse his way around these, much as he did with similar requirements for people receiving food stamps where he continued these by placing qualifications on recipients basically no more onerous than showing the ability to fog a mirror. For example, he would have the Department of Health write regulations that makes almost any emergency room trip considered necessary in order to avoid a co-payment, as Republicans want to charge that for visits deemed unnecessary.

Edwards’ goal here is to limit the amount of money Medicaid users pay in. Every additional self-generated dollar means one fewer dollar of permanent tax increases necessary, which can lock in bigger government that controls more and more people’s lives, with expanded ability to redistribute resources to buy voter support and give the political left a greater chance of seizing and maintaining power.

Already, Edwards has gone into stall mode on this, with his first tactic a declaration that he must study the “costs” to implement these changes. That politically-driven determination is bogus: nine months ago his administration opposed Medicaid work requirements because of alleged administrative costs and issues, but as the issue has gained traction, he reversed course and now claims to have worked on the matter for some time. Likely he will do as he did with food stamps, adopting a cooptation strategy that intends to issue nearly toothless regulations and then hunker down to resist adjustments in law to make those actually meaningful.

Republicans here must stay firm linking the limit change and Medicaid requirements to any tax increases, which, if any, should be temporary sales tax hikes. A rapidly advancing budget, driven by Medicaid costs now almost half of it and threatened to squeeze out other important priorities gives them the leverage to ask those privileged with Medicaid to pay their fair share and to place a more realistic cap on all spending. They must ask for significant concessions on these.

Edwards will try to break out of the shrinking box the House GOP instructions represent. The good of the state necessitates that he does not.

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