Political Horizons: Budget tricks part of an old pattern

A decade ago, Jay Dardenne — then a Louisiana state senator, now lieutenant governor — grabbed the microphone at the State Capitol.

In a long and sharply worded speech, Dardenne criticized then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s $17.9 billion budget for the fiscal year 2005, which had to overcome a $500 million shortfall in revenues to pay for services, as “balanced with one-time money and counts on revenues that have yet to be approved.”

“This is another patchwork way for limping along for another year,” said Dardenne, a Baton Rouge Republican. He’s now running for governor in the 2015 election, and the budgeting is the same as it ever was.

State Rep. Brett Geymann expressed the same sentiments, including use of the word “patchwork,” to describe the legislation Gov. Bobby Jindal signed Friday that authorizes spending $24.6 billion on government services for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Lake Charles Republican heads the wing of the Louisiana House that has pushed fiscal makeover policy for years.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, another Louisiana politician who sees himself as governor one day, last week said the state’s budget has been “held together in the past several years with sewing yarn and scotch tape.” Vitter joins a growing chorus calling for some sort of comprehensive review of all the policies — including lucrative tax credits — to see how best to stabilize state government’s chronic budget problems.

“It’s not just this governor. It’s an annual process,” said state Rep. Jim Fannin, the Jonesboro Republican who, as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is responsible for House Bill 1 that each year becomes the state budget.

It’s a pattern of not generating enough revenues to pay for the state’s modest portion — the federal government kicks in a lot of dollars — for roads, schools, law enforcement, taking care of the elderly, disaster management, health care for the poor, higher education, monitoring water quality, universities, prisons, attracting businesses and any number of other services demanded by the politicians voters elect.

The governor then looks around for money to cover the shortfall in revenues. Usually, the administration comes up with some tortured explanations of why this particular pot of “one-time money” doesn’t fall under the legal prohibitions against using windfall dollars that won’t be available next year — like settlements in court cases — to pay recurring bills such as yearly employee salaries.

Legislators go along because the fiction technically balances the budget.

Fannin says overhauling the budget process is necessary because it’s clear that tinkering around the edges often creates new problems.

As an example, Fannin points to a “reform” enacted in the early 1990s at the urging of good government types. Once the legislators approved each line of an agency’s spending, it was decided to instead appropriate blocks of money, then let agency leaders make the decisions.

Great idea, Fannin agrees. Let the professionals in the trenches decide how best to handle day-to-day spending, not a bunch of politicians micromanaging from the wood-paneled committee rooms in the State Capitol.

Then some of agency heads started “carrying funded vacancies” — that is, not filling jobs, and holding that money for something else. Fannin estimates millions of dollars are being diverted in this way.

“If I’m the secretary of an agency, and I need 10 new automobiles, I shouldn’t be afraid to come to (the legislative authorization committee called) Joint Budget and make that case,” Fannin said.

“The script needs to be changed,” agreed state Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego and a member of the Legislature since 1972.

“It’s easy to throw a stone like that, but at the same time somebody needs to step forward and say, ‘Wait a minute, now that’s true, but how do we solve it?” Alario said.

Making do with less has helped, he said. Now officials need to start increasing revenues.

Maybe officials should review tax incentives to see if the credits and exemptions created new jobs for the new income that was promised. Lawmakers have been pushing this idea. Maybe there are other ideas.

“I am hoping in the next governor’s election that they’ll at least debate that and bring it to the attention of the people so that the public is aware of what the problem is,” Alario said. “We really have to figure this thing out.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog