Spinning Straw Men Into Fool’s Gold

They think we are fools. They – the House Republican Delegation – think we – the people of Louisiana, the voters, their constituents – will believe they have “saved” us by agreeing to a budget that cuts every agency of state government by 24-percent, except for the Louisiana Department of Health. How do we know this is what they think? They said so. “Throughout this entire process, the House of Representatives have done our job, have held the line, and saved the people of this state,” declared House Republican Caucus leader Lance Harris, at a press conference immediately following the House vote to concur in the Senate’s changes to the budget bill, HB 1. This is the House majority leadership, the same group that put together a budget reducing funding for LDH by a total of $1.6-billion dollars on April 19th. That House budget bill is what prompted the closure and layoff notices from public-private partner hospitals, and it required notifying nursing home residents and disabilities waiver participants that they could be losing their eligibility. Viewing that as utterly unacceptable, the Louisiana Senate re-crafted the budget and fully funded health care and the hospitals. The only way to do so, and keep spending balanced with revenue, was to slash 24% or the resources allocated to every other agency, department and branch of state government. It was an object lesson for the House leadership, to illustrate “the seriousness” of the budget crisis. “It will shut everything down,” Senate Finance chairman Eric LaFleur acknowledged. “But the House didn’t give us any options.” That’s not how House leadership told the tale, once the full House, on a 61-37 vote, agreed to go along with the Senate’s budget version. “The administration had chosen to make the elderly their least priority,” Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry stated. “We just chose to make it our highest.” There’s so much “spin” packed into that statement, it’s a wonder you’re not too dizzy to keep reading. Blaming the administration, i.e., the governor, is part of this group’s standard narrative. But as for their choosing to make the elderly – and disabled – their “highest priority”? It’s a blatant falsehood. If there was any truth to that statement, the Appropriations committee would not have reduced the time available on the single public testimony day by four hours – when previous Appropriations committees usually devoted two full days to hearing public testimony. And during the budget concurrence discussion on the House floor Thursday, Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) inadvertently revealed the scorn he and many of his fellow party members have for members of the public who are required, year-after-year, to beg for funding for their life-preserving services. “If we vote for this, does that mean we’re not going to have to watch the parade of hospitals asking for more money, or hear waiver people telling their sob stories from here on out?” Havard asked. In the post-concurrence press conference, Henry – less bluntly – indicated his disdain, as well. “LDH is fully funded and the people that depend on those services don’t have to worry about all that and come calling,” he said. “Sheriffs, DAs, DCFS will come calling, but that’s a different perspective, compared to nursing homes, waivers, things of that nature, where – obviously – everything is, um, personal.” Throughout Thursday’s budget debate, and during the press conference afterward, the Appropriations chairman displayed a cavalier attitude toward the effects of defunding so much of state government. That’s because this fits perfectly into the Republican mantra of “reducing the size of government.” “These 24-percent cuts – are we really that fat?” asked Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin). “The Senate resolution says if we pass revenue, they get their funding back,” Henry replied. “And you’re telling us it will be okay?” Jones asked. “We’re all being treated equally,” Henry equivocated. When reporters later asked about specific shortages, Henry remained nonchalant. “There are only about seven agencies whose budgets are less, under the budget we just passed, than they actually spent in 2017,” Henry said. Let’s take a moment and unpack that statement. The Appropriations chairman is not comparing the next budget to the current one – he’s comparing it to the prior year’s budget –the one that ended June 30, 2017. If you recall, that was the year TOPS was cut by 30%, and a special session was needed to close a $304-million mid-year budget shortfall. It also required tapping into the Rainy Day Fund. What will the FY 19 budget do? According to the Division of Administration analysis presented to all members of the Senate and House: The Louisiana School for the Deaf and the Louisiana School for Math Science and the Arts would close at their mid-year break. Louisiana Public Broadcasting would go off the air New Year’s Day. State parks and historic sites would close completely. State veterans’ cemeteries will close. All 27 forest fire substations will close. 11,500 of the 15,965 state prisoners housed in local jails would be furloughed – put back on the streets without supervision. Even though the federal government pays 100% of SNAP (food stamp) benefits, Louisiana would become the only state without a SNAP program, since the state-required funding to administer the program is eliminated. And the Secretary of State won’t have enough money to pay for this fall’s elections – which include voting on congressional representatives. The state court system is cut 24%, as well, and might just not hold hearings and trials for 3 months out of the year. The legislature also loses 24% of its funding, which would – of course – prevent holding yet another special session to deal with any other budget shortfalls. Henry does not want you to find this out, especially not from Gov. John Bel Edwards. “Hopefully, the governor won’t continue the fear-mongering as he has in the past,” he said. And while the Appropriations chairman has said he is now amenable to raising some additional revenue to fill the budget holes, he is insistent $649-million is NOT the target number. He and the House GOP Caucus have stuck to $495-million as their calculated shortfall amount, but have never explained how they arrived at that figure. They don’t even intend to shoot for that figure during the special session that begins next week. “Members are going home to see if their constituents’ will is to say we need that dollar amount,” Henry states. “The Senate has given us a good breakdown, and if we raise $313-million, I imagine it will look something like the Senate did. But I think we’ll probably put a little bit more toward TOPS – about $88-million there.” So their story goes like this: the governor made this mess, the House Republicans saved you from it, and they’re going to fix things during this next special session. Sure. That’s pyrite — fool’s gold – and it is worth exactly as much as the promise Lance Harris made, after then-Governor Bobby Jindal withdrew his plan to eliminate state income taxes – a plan which Rep. Lance Harris enthusiastically supported. “While repeal is off the table for this legislative session, we will continue to work on the issue so that we can craft a responsible way to achieve our objectives in reforming the tax code in the future,” Harris said, on April 16, 2013. There have been ten legislative sessions since then. And where are the reforms to the tax code?