Our Views: A budget in crisis

If his critics snipe at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s frequent travels to key Republican primary states, the reality is that, over the next six weeks or so, E.T. is going to have to phone home, probably a lot.

That’s because, at the midpoint of the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers are widely disgruntled with the governor’s proposed budget. Over the weeks since the Legislature convened, House and Senate committees have seen numerous holes punched in the document, not least the vast amounts of one-time money being used for the operating budget.

As the newly elected governor said in 2008, “That is like using your credit card to pay your mortgage.”

And the concern over the budget is hardly limited to that issue, for as Jindal officials point out, one-time money has been sluiced into the operating budget for a number of years.

The sheer number of expedients and mechanisms needed to move money from one fund to another fund has finally caused enough angst among lawmakers. There’s about $900 million in short-term financing, and that ought to worry lawmakers looking to next year, when they must seek re-election and simultaneously see the wheels come off the state budget.

Colleges continue to suffer, despite the governor’s statements to the contrary. “What we have done to higher education is an embarrassment,” said Treasurer John N. Kennedy at the annual meeting of the Public Affairs Research Council. Two legislators on the panel, a Republican and a Democrat, deplored the ways that money has been shifted and shuffled to achieve a fictitious balance.

Yet what legislators do about it remains to be seen, and it’s not likely to be pretty. The lawmakers cannot raise taxes, even over a certain gubernatorial veto, because it’s a general session in an even-numbered year; the Louisiana Constitution bars that.

So making the books balance will be a messy process, as lawmakers first try to make sense of the governor’s budgetary legerdemain, then come up with some rabbits-out-of-the-hat tricks of their own.

Experience suggests a rocky passage of the budget, with many amendments through the House, but then a pause in the Senate Finance Committee, when the governor will have to phone in. Our prediction, not necessarily a fact, is that the key call will be to Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, to patch together a solution to what is almost certain to be sharp disagreements in the budget bill between House and Senate.

E.T., phone home: We can only hope for a happy ending, just like in the movie.