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Cowardly House GOP angles for assisted political suicide

One of the main reasons, in a moderately conservative country like the U.S. where Republicans do not consistently operate government, and in a conservative state like Louisiana where only recently Republicans have come to power, that the GOP does not run government as often as their numbers would suggest is the party’s propensity to have its elected officials form a circular firing squad and shoot. And when it’s done for reasons of political cowardice, it’s that much worse.

Louisiana Democrats must be guffawing at the latest incident, the House’s passage of Republican state Rep. Brett Geymann’s HCR 27 which requires, for use in a budget, a two-thirds vote of the House to allow in any funds “ available for appropriation from any special treasury fund excluding any monies forecast to be dedicated into such a fund by the Revenue Estimating Conference in the official forecast for that fiscal year [or m]oney available for appropriation from the state general fund from one time transactions, but not recognized as nonrecurring revenue by the Revenue Estimating Conference, including but not limited to court settlements, the sale of state facilities, and the privatization of state operations.”

As previously noted, the second part of this isn’t entirely reckless – asset sales and settlements are true windfalls of a kind, although there’s no logic including privatization efforts since they produce recurring savings. But it’s the asinine first part that demonstrates too many members of the House choose symbolism over substance, to the detriment of both the state and, in the case of Republicans, to GOP fortunes.

While “one-time” money does refer to all of these things in the rule change, most often and the majority of it used in real life is described in that first part. The funds eligible for use in this way sit in 225 separate accounts which, at last reckoning, contained about $5 billion in unencumbered money. They sit because they got there by some constitutional or (almost all of them) statutory dedication obligating their revenue streams for that purpose, some of these decades old. And, the fact is, a significant portion of them would, if left undisturbed by the frequent budgetary maneuver of dipping into them to provide additional revenues, stay in the accounts forever doing nothing more than drawing a little interest.

That’s because the Legislature conducts no review of these roughly 300 dedications, which suck in 71 percent of all non-federal money coming into Louisiana’s coffers. A good portion of them go out as expenditures, but they not only prove to allocate poorly in some cases revenues to the actual expenditures required of the purpose to which they are tied, causing the surpluses to build up, they also represent an abdication of legislative responsibility to make priorities on the basis of genuine need. Instead, it allows legislators to take political cover for their failure to tackle these issues by claiming they are being “forced” by dedications to spend in certain ways and to cut in others.

Those are the general, theoretical parameters of the situation. More specifically and politically, this will make much harder the balancing of the current year budget, which uses hundreds of millions of dollars from these funds. If these reallocated funds are not used, equivalent cuts must come, most from the areas of health care and higher education although other areas such as corrections and veterans affairs would also suffer.

With steep reductions having already come in the past two years in these areas, cuts of such depth on top of these finally may be enough to cause such service disruptions to trigger widespread discontent among the electorate against the party that controls the budgeting process – Republicans, with Gov. Bobby Jindal and majorities in each chamber, which would be music to the ears of moribund state Democrats and their candidates in the fall. The alternative to this fate without the two-thirds vote would be to find additional revenues, which translates into the tactic about which Democrats have brayed long and loudly for, tax increases that almost every Republican has sworn against. This broken promise and economically unwise capitulation to bloated government (in part caused by the dedications) would produce even greater Republican losses this fall than drastic cuts.

To avoid such political fates, this would leave just two alternatives related to the new rule, neither palatable politically for the GOP. The simplest would be to approve of the spending by the two-thirds vote – except that Democrats hold more than a third of House seats and can block this. While Democrats do prefer more spending rather than less, for electoral purposes they may prefer to create budgetary chaos through rejection and allowing Republicans complete ownership of an issue that only has downside. That all but one black Democrat and only a dozen Democrats in total, normally free spenders all, voted against this change is telling; the majority of Republican House members voted against it.

If thwarted this way, the GOP could realize the error of its ways and rescind the rule. But this backtracking would cause political embarrassment and Democrats would enjoy informing the electorate about their opponents’ hypocrisy, indecisiveness, lack of seriousness in “tackling” state spending problems, etc. this fall. This probably is the least damaging of the four scenarios, with the larger point being Republicans now have boxed themselves into a situation where only they can lose.

Political ramifications aside, passage of this rule change is bad not just because it is only feel-good designed to try to make representatives able to claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism, but also because it puts a fig leaf over the real obscenity of lack of political courage legislators have when it comes to making hard choices in allocating dollars. The gutlessness of a minority of Republican representatives too eager to shape their images does nothing to correct a malfunctioning state fiscal structure and hands their political opponents a metaphorical knife that may be sunk into a number of their GOP colleagues and them this fall where their guts would be, if they had them.

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