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Louisiana’s Budget Crisis Proves State House Leadership Cares More About Politics Than Governing

The current budget crisis underscores a sad and toxic reality about our state’s political system.

On Jan. 22nd, 2018, when Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards released his executive budget for the next fiscal year, he made certain to emphasize that it was “not the budget I want,” but he had little choice: He is constitutionally required to submit a budget to the legislature that is informed by the state’s projected revenue, and due to the expiration of a temporary one-cent sales tax increase, Louisiana will likely lose $1.4 billion in revenue, which translates to a nearly $1 billion loss from its general fund.

Although the state’s annual budget is more than $27 billion, only $3.4 billion of that is discretionary, which means we will somehow have to cut 30% of our discretionary spending in order to make up for the projected loss in revenue. This is a fact that has been largely ignored by the governor’s critics, who claim the state’s problems are the result of wasteful spending, believing that a punchy talking point carries more political currency than an honest assessment of the law and the facts. There is simply no possible way to cut one-third of the state’s discretionary spending by eliminating wasteful programs; we’ve already tried that, over and over again. We’ve already cut all of the meat; we’re now carving at the bone.

Gov. Edwards and others have referred to the document as a “doomsday budget,” with deep cuts to health care, social services, and higher education, including an 80% cut to TOPS, the state’s popular college scholarship program. But it’d be just as accurate to refer to the plan as the “Harris-Henry budget,” because, once again, Louisiana finds itself on the edge of a fiscal cliff as a direct result of the failures of Republican leadership in the State House of Representatives. And although the Speaker of the House, Taylor Barras, is a Republican, it remains an open secret in Baton Rouge that his colleagues Cameron Henry, who chairs the state’s appropriation committee, and Lance Harris, who leads the Republican caucus, actually hold the reins.

It is indisputable that Louisiana, once again, continues to find itself at the brink due to the irresponsible fiscal policies undertaken during the Jindal years, saddling the current governor with a nearly $2 billion shortfall on his very first day in office. It is also indisputable that the Louisiana legislature is dominated by Republicans and that the legislature, not the governor, ultimately has the power of the purse.

What most Louisianians do not realize, however, is that there are more than enough Republicans in the state house willing to forge a bipartisan compromise with Democrats and Independents to solve what has now become a recurring crisis. Unfortunately, the Republican Party’s leadership has continually made it clear that they have little regard for the job of governing, and until and unless there is a change in leadership, we will almost certainly lunge from one crisis to the next.

For example, late last year, for several weeks, Rep. Cameron Henry shamelessly held up the renewals of five major Medicaid contracts, worth a total of at least $15 billion, in what can only be described as a pathetic act of political theater. The contracts were never controversial, had been first negotiated by his fellow Republicans, were originally a Republican idea, and their renewals had already glided through the state senate, which is also dominated by Republicans. But Henry saw an opportunity to wield his power on the appropriations committee, and, in so doing, he single-handedly threatened the health care of more than 1.6 million citizens. Ultimately, he capitulated after the administration agreed to add superflous language allowing the legislative auditor access to data and documentation to which he was already entitled. Henry claimed victory, boasting that the negotiations were a testament to his leadership skills and his commitment to transparency in government, which is ironic considering that Henry appears to have filed inaccurate and incomplete documents about his own finances to the state ethics administration.

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The current budget crisis underscores a sad and toxic reality about our state’s political system. Louisiana was, until relatively recently, dominated by Democrats, and many of the state’s most prominent Republican leaders were once registered and even outspoken Democrats, including both of our U.S. Senators and numerous members of the state legislature. But, at some point, opportunistic partisan tribalism became more lucrative than principled public service.

To be sure, there are legitimate ideological differences about the role and function of government between the two parties, but in recent years, Louisiana has been infected by politicians who would rather traffic in partisan hyperbole. It turns out governing is hard work and requires compromise, and it’s much easier to talk than it is to govern. It’s also easier to traffic in opinions that reinforce people’s preconceived beliefs than it is to legislate based on facts that may challenge those beliefs.

As the most recent budget crisis clearly demonstrates, Republican leaders in the state house and their allies in the conservative media have very little regard for the facts or for the underlying, structural issues that created the problems we are currently facing. Louisiana, they claim, is at the edge of the fiscal cliff because we spend too much, which is a neat and simplistic explanation that likely appeals to a great many number of voters but is also totally dishonest.

We didn’t spend our way to the edge; we cut, cut, cut without any regard for the implications and with the belief that these cuts- most of which were made to foundational civic institutions like schools and hospitals- would somehow generate more economic output. It hasn’t. We gave away billions in special tax breaks and incentives in order to line the pockets of big corporations, with the belief that we would somehow recapture all of it. We haven’t.

During the Jindal administration, Louisiana refused to accept billions of dollars in federal funding for things like infrastructure (under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act), broadband roll-out, and health care expansion, and now that we are finally receiving some of those dollars through the Medicaid expansion program, Republican leaders and the conservative media pretend as if the cause of our budget crisis is increased federal investment. It’s an absurd argument, but when you tell an average voter that Louisiana’s total budget has increased in the past two years without providing the context, it is easy to understand why that voter may conclude the problem is that we spend too much, bolstering the case for more tax cuts and undermining the justification for additional sources of revenue.

And that’s exactly the case being made against Gov. Edwards by organizations like LABI, which is led by Stephen Waguespack, a man who- more than almost anyone else- is responsible for creating these ongoing crises when he worked as Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff; it’s the case being made by far-right legislators and on the pages of right-wing blog sites and on the airwaves of conservative talk radio. It’s a narrative that particularly appeals to rural white voters, who comprise the base of the Republican Party in Louisiana, many of whom believe the government is merely in the business of giving their hard-earned money away to undeserving minorities and moochers.

This is also the reason why Rep. Lance Harris thinks now is the right time to introduce a bill forcing anyone who receives health insurance through Medicaid and is able-bodied to hold a full-time job or volunteer at least 20 hours a week. Although the proposed law would necessitate the dramatic expansion of government bureaucracy and intrude on the private lives of hundreds of thousands of Louisianians, treating those who receive Medicaid as if they are recently released felons on probation (and despite the fact that more than 76% of Medicaid recipients already have jobs), it also perfectly represents the misplaced and unserious priorities of those in control of the state house: a belief that it is better to spend public money in order to prevent people from accessing government programs than on the programs themselves.

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Louisiana is a poor state, and yet, far too many of us have been convinced that we could become wealthier and more productive by disinvesting resources that help those most in need. It’s not aspirational; it’s delusional and cruel and dishonest. And far too often, it’s animated by racism.

Yes, we are also welfare state, but not in the way the term is commonly defined. We rely on the welfare of the federal government; 40% of the state’s revenue comes from the federal government. We could maximize the money we generate as a state; instead, we squander it, not on citizens but on corporations. Every year, we leave billions of dollars on the table through tax giveaways to the very people who need it the least. So, it should be no wonder why organizations like Stephen Waguespack’s LABI (or the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry) are adamantly opposed to any substantive reforms that would increase corporate tax revenue, decrease corporate tax giveaways, and eliminate tax loopholes. We are also a corporate welfare state.

Their constituents are not the people of Louisiana; they’re the shareholders of big businesses, who are just fine, thank you very much, with the status quo. So, instead of enacting meaningful reforms, even if those reforms enjoy broad, bipartisan support, they’re more comfortable with simply increasing sales taxes on everyone else to make up the difference. No doubt, that’s what they hope to do this year: Delay, once again, any attempt at reform and merely renew a regressive tax that disproportionately affects the poor and working class.

To do otherwise would be to acknowledge that their decade-long experiment in disaster capitalism and out-of-control corporate welfare has been an epic failure.

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