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Solid Jindal reform budget stays course, promises more

Reformers should take heart from a Gov. Bobby Jindal budget that continues for the most part to advance the cause and begins to reveal the boldness that Jindal always has promised, and needs to show to advance his political career.

Fiscal pressures meant another exercise in cutting, and Jindal used to a moderate degree the recommendations of the Commission on Streamlining Government whose output was a much a search for deficit reduction measures as it was a vehicle to build political capital for ideas along these lines the Jindal Administration has been contemplating for some time. But not much was used from the Postsecondary Education Review Commission as the only cuts made there were in system administration. If anything, this signals to the Regents and schools that they have a year to get their houses in order and to make some big changes, or the next budget will force it on them.

With higher education almost totally spared, once again in aggregate health care bore the brunt of reductions even as they were minimal, although this could change. With talk of federal action that generally could pump health bucks to the states for another year, and still the hope that specifically for Louisiana a fix will be made to the funding formula that disadvantages the state for past federal recovery largesse, should one or both of these manifest the budget is designed largely to restore this funding.

These cuts largely resonate around the theme of the state getting out of the business of direct provision of health care, manifested this year in the areas of mental health services, group homes for the developmentally disabled, and treatment of addictive disorders. Shifts are from institutional to community- and home-based care and privatization when possible. But just as with higher education, a message is sent that bigger things are one the way with the current changes signaling that next year wholesale de-institutionalization is on the way as the state likely will shed most of its charity hospitals, state supports and services centers for the developmentally disabled, and (more optimistically) in reliance on nursing homes for care of the elderly and disabled under the theory that the nongovernment sector can handle much of this service provision with reduced emphasis on warehousing of the less healthy.

These grander ideas, if Jindal holds to course, represent a shift more towards these kinds of actions where in the past Jindal usually has moved in less eye-catching ways based more upon improvement of implementation as his reformist strategy. However, there still is plenty of that in other areas of government where some significant reductions occur mainly in operational aspects. The Department of Social Services is planned to have many functions consolidated to other agencies, the Office of Motor Vehicles faces the same within its own structure, the Department of Environmental Quality will have to run only on the resources it collects itself (including federal sources), the Department of Corrections must trim expenses through greater use of technology, and the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism must set priorities in what offerings it will be able to run.

Besides the overall Jindal goal of reducing government’s role in direct health care provision which has been an ongoing effort since the budget crisis began over a year ago, the budget also introduces subtle and more specific Jindal desires of more recent vintage that challenge established orders. The cuts to CRT speak to Jindal’s desire to eliminate the lieutenant governor’s position which already is drawing resistance, the higher education cuts provide impetus to combining the fragmented higher education governance structure, and other cuts to the administration of elementary and secondary education at the state level which send the message that streamlining must occur there as well, where all attempt to prod powers that be in these areas Jindal cannot directly control to accept these Jindal initiatives. If they resist, next year’s budget actions could ramp up the pressure even more.

Two areas disappoint, one in a nagging way. Many tax amnesty dollars got used which made the health care cuts minimal, but this is a one-time source not available for next year and federal spending dollars around $1 billion continue to prop up this year’s effort. If all things remain the same, neither will be available next year and their use is unfortunate because of the concerted efforts that Jindal and mainly his fellow legislative Republicans have made to match state expenditures with recurring sources of funds.

The biggest ongoing weakness of Jindal’s fiscal plans is his odd faith in the chimera of state-planned “economic development” where the state intervenes in the marketplace to bribe firms to locate in the state through cash giveaways. The budget does nothing to discourage this and protects money that sits there for this purpose, despite the fact it costs more in taxpayer dollars to provide these incentives than the revenues they ever bring in to state coffers, when it could be used for more cost-effective needs.

On the whole, though, the executive budget continues remaking Louisiana government into a smaller and better steward of the people’s money. It even hints of bolder things to come which cannot hurt Jindal in a 2011 reelection bid and for any other political plans he may have.

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