Our Views: A billion in the gap

The state’s fiscal year starts on July 1, so it is numbered by tradition on the year in which Jan. 1 falls. So the new fiscal 2015 budget is in place, left by a Legislature that ended its work without much budget drama and with some gains in the form of raises for state employees and a cost-of-living increase for retirees.

Unfortunately, the good news was tempered with a lot of worry about the future because many of the legislative leadership see behind the broad numbers. Under the hood, not a smooth engine for lawmakers already looking ahead to fiscal 2016, which will be a challenge for lawmakers. And they face the voters again in fall 2015.

That’s a real deadline, and the prospect of significant cuts in services and to state institutions is a real threat.

“The 2014 legislative session ended with a state budget balanced conveniently with contrived and borrowed revenue and the further depletion of trust fund resources,” the Public Affairs Research Council said of the 2015 budget.

State fiscal analysts and independent analysts like PAR forecast something like $991 million that won’t be available next year.

And while that ought to worry state college administrators — as in the past, higher education may be one of the go-to sources for cuts to balance the budget — the PAR analysis suggests that, with the dramatic reductions in trust funds and other sources of one-time money, real cuts will be in the offing.

That assumes, also, that some cuts will be made during the interim by the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal. One of the reasons why the notion of “legislative independence” is such a joke in the State Capitol is that lawmakers leave much to the discretion of the governor’s Division of Administration, instead of making hard choices directly.

So if the 2014 session was relatively quiet on the budget front, it produced a 2015 spending plan that is very likely to go off the rails next year.

If PAR’s criticism is from the center-right of the policy spectrum, the Louisiana Budget Project is on the center-left, and its criticisms are likely to be part of the debate next session: “Although Louisiana’s economy has recovered nicely from the Great Recession, the state still isn’t bringing in enough revenue to fund basic services and make the investments necessary for sustained economic growth. Instead of creating a tax structure that raises the revenue we need in a fair and predictable way, policymakers have resorted to a series of gimmicks and one-time fixes to keep the budget in balance.”

Gimmicks and one-time fixes aren’t a solution, and lawmakers generally are aware of the problem. But like Mr. Micawber in the Dickens novel, they’re hoping that something will turn up to save them from harsh cuts in an election year.