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House must not discard winning hand on LA budget

The breathless reporting occurring over Louisiana’s fiscal year 2017 budget seemed to lose sight of what Gov. John Bel Edwards Administration functionaries alleged as a $600 million deficit compared to a standstill FY 2016 budget that went to zero with only one main area of contention.

At the end of last week Louisiana’s House of Representatives delivered a budget where the only controversy came over supplying just 76 percent of the projected funding for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students program that otherwise would pay tuition for any high school student with mediocre scholastic achievement to attend college. That $72 million shortfall under current law means that to qualify for TOPS only students with decent-to-good performance on the American College Test would have taxpayers foot their tuition bills.

Meaning that the other $528 million supposedly so vital for the health and safety of Louisianans found resolution. About $100 million of that would come through a funds sweep redirecting fee proceeds into funding programs not tied to those fees, but the remainder came out of operating budgets of a large cross-section of bureaucratic agencies. And it came with resounding support of House members: only three of 41 Democrats voted against it, with 14 Republicans of 61 actually against it.

Such minority party support undercuts any remonstrations against it voiced by Democrat Edwards and his allies, who hinted insufficient allocation of funds for the state’s charity hospitals, a program for qualifying families to receive some assistance for disabled children, and TOPS deserved a special session following closely the regular session to raise taxes on citizens. However, whatever cuts may occur to the Children’s Choice Waiver are not to critical services that aid children’s survival nor do those to the Adult Day Health Care Waiver address a critical need, partner hospitals aren’t so concerned with minor reductions as they are with wildly optimistic estimates of reimbursement from the state that likely will not pan out, and TOPS, which acts like an entitlement program given its low standards (and not a very efficient one), just is not a critical service.

The Senate may try to rearrange matters to take more money from TOPS, the seeming Achilles’ heel of many GOP legislators obsessed with keeping whole an entitlement program that aids mainly low achievers from mostly middle-class-and-above families, and put it back into these programs. This would serve Edwards’ hope that by taking much out of TOPS, this would force Republicans to acquiesce to a special session to raise taxes to fund it completely.

It also could try a backdoor approach by removing the $100 million shifted from collected fees on the claim the Legislature does not have the power to move funds in this way. The verdict seems mixed here: the courts have allowed the state to employ this tactic when it involves something collected by an agency to carry out its functions, but not when it involves funds paid in for retirement purposes.

Were the Senate to do things like these, the House simply should walk away, as Edwards and Senate allies, which could include enough Republicans to make a working majority with the chambers’ minority Democrats, need an inflated budget much more than does the more fiscally-conservative House GOP majority. The lower chamber should go to the wall with a budget cutting TOPS and not adding substantially more to anything else, and tell the Senate and Edwards that either they accept something close to its version or they can end the session without a budget and let Edwards take all the heat for making cuts that constitutionally he would have to do within days of the start of the new fiscal year, knowing that voters will punish him for making cuts avoidable by going with the House’s version.

Because Edwards and his allies lust for larger government and must have GOP permission to get it – by increased spending and then a special session to fund that – Republicans control the process. Either they can force Edwards to accept spending smaller than he likes or force him to bear full responsibility for reductions (which he phrases in apocalyptic terms), so long as they refuse to give in. If forced to accept cuts, Edwards gains no political advantage by signing off on them; if forced to make cuts, he suffers all of the political blowback from these that intensifies if he cuts vital services instead of less needed ones. Holding fast to the principle of right-sized government also makes Edwards take a political hit in that he insisted in the necessity of tax increases to balance the budget, and then must submit to no increases with a government smaller than his base prefers, exposing him as an alarmist fraud.

If only Republicans don’t get spooked over a TOPS reduction, they can force Edwards into accepting smaller government and put his tax-and-spend agenda on the defensive for the remainder of what then surely would turn out as one term. TOPS becomes a much better instrument of public policy with higher standards, and holding the spending line not only creates government of a more appropriate size but also helps to erase the stigma they brought on themselves by approving of tax increases in the $2 billion range over the past year. That also could purify any special session from an exercise in reaching into the people’s wallets into restructuring the state’s fiscal framework to prioritize better spending and to redo the tax code to make it more efficient.

The forwarded budget shows Edwards wears no clothes on this issue. The House Republican majority has no reason to throw away this winning hand.

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