Our Views: Behind scenes, the real threat

While the whirling circus of tax reform proposals attracted much attention in the State Capitol, perhaps we all should pay more attention to the fact that somebody under the big tent left the tigers’ cage door open.

It is the budget problem facing the state that is like a predator roaming the Capitol halls, and it is going to bite lawmakers badly unless they focus on it.

The annual public hearings on the budget, in which citizen groups appear before the House Appropriations Committee, revealed more than the usual angst about the human and institutional costs of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposal for fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1.

Serious levels of cuts have already been made in state spending over the past few years, and every pot of money has been raided, noted the Council for a Better Louisiana. That problem is not lost on Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the appropriations panel.

“We talk about creating jobs all across this state, and I think we have,” Fannin said. “But the revenue’s not going up, ladies and gentlemen.”

CABL notes that structural problems plague efforts to balance the budget. “Despite all the cuts, increased costs from external forces such as Medicaid mandates and rising retirement costs have continued to create huge budget shortfalls for the state each year, usually prompting budget cuts followed by further midyear reductions to keep the budget in balance,” CABL said. “This year’s budget shortfall is in the neighborhood of $1 billion and the next two years don’t look a whole lot better.”

There is also more pressure on Jindal’s budget because of a bewildering array of short-term fixes, a consequence of Jindal’s policy of cutting taxes with scant regard for the fiscal consequences.

As CABL noted, at some point you run out of places to look for cash.

Perhaps the budget is worst for higher education, once funded largely from the general fund. Now, most state-supplied higher education money — much lower, because of cuts by Jindal and lawmakers before this year — is reliant on one-time funds and other fixes.

It’s more likely a case of when some of them don’t appear, instead of if some of them don’t appear. And then colleges are virtually guaranteed another midyear budget cut.

The predators are roaming the circus tents, and lawmakers ought not let themselves be distracted from that crisis, whatever is going on in the ring where the governor is trying to pull rabbits out of his hat.