As the third commissioner of administration for Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kristy Nichols has the unenviable task of putting a happy face on another cobbled-together budget.
Technically balanced, the $24.7 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2014 is like its predecessors for five years, robbing Peter to pay Paul in a hundred different ways. Peter is so used to the treatment that he just hands over the wallet when he sees some new commissioner coming around the bend.
Unhappily for Nichols, the budgetary shell game is getting a little old, and has now threatened one of Republican legislators’ key priorities, the TOPS scholarships.
They largely benefit middle- and upper-income families, and Nichols proposes using caches of money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement to fund $120 million for TOPS.
“I have spoken with a good number of the members of the Legislature, and each senator and representative has expressed concern over how this budget has been cobbled together,” noted Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, in a statement.
Carmody and other conservatives are just now catching on? Five years of mid-year budget cuts have cut state support for colleges and universities, which used to be a top economic development priority for conservative lawmakers and interest groups. Carmody and others voiced concern over TOPS because it has a political constituency in the GOP suburbs, but their fear is for the years after fiscal 2014, for the one-time money will have to be replaced with money from the general fund eventually.
Our concern is more immediate: The ways that Jindal’s budget uses asset sales and a bewildering array of shifts of money from one fund to another may reach new levels in this budget. But the new budget’s structural deficiencies almost guarantee more midyear budget cuts, and cannot be called “balanced” in any broader sense of the term.
Louisiana’s finances have not been shattered by national recession, but local incompetence: Jindal recklessly cut state income taxes and made other giveaways in the fiscal 2009 budget, with oil prices high and hurricane recovery spending fueling tax revenues.
Those mistakes that echoed through the years, for which Nichols is the messenger — and for legislators who enacted the tax cuts and have declined opportunities to raise revenues through tax increases or repealing tax exemptions.
If Carmody and others want to criticize, they can find fault with Nichols’ expedients to meet the crisis, but should not be shocked that Peter is light in the wallet. Many legislators are willing accomplices to the robbery.
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