BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Though Bobby Jindal is long gone from the halls of the Louisiana Capitol, the Republican ex-governor’s name almost certainly will be invoked time and again during Gov. John Bel Edwards’ deficit-closing special session that opens Monday.
Edwards, a Democrat, and many officials in both parties blame Jindal’s financial mismanagement for creating troubles so deep that the current governor and lawmakers are still digging out from them more than a year after Jindal’s exit from Louisiana politics.
Setting aside the blame game, a central debate over how to eliminate the $304 million deficit hinges on discontent with financing Jindal used to patch his way through years of budget crises: Should the state use a savings account to pay for ongoing services?
Edwards proposes about $60 million in cuts to state spending to rebalance the $27 billion operating budget. To close the rest of the deficit, he wants to plug holes with nearly $120 million from Louisiana’s Budget Stabilization Fund - known as the “rainy day” fund - and another $120 million in other reserves and financing sources.
Some Republican lawmakers say that plan, particularly use of the rainy day fund, contains too many short-term fixes. They’re suggesting they may jettison the proposal in favor of deeper cuts during the 10-day legislative session.
The leader of the House Republican delegation, Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said such temporary maneuvers “perpetuate the same problems.”
Other lawmakers echo assertions made by the Edwards administration that with fewer than five months left in the budget year, trying to make $304 million in cuts would be devastating to programs on which people depend. The debate over long-term changes to stabilize the state’s finances will come, Edwards says, in the regular legislative session that begins in April.
Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, said he’s willing to support use of the rainy day money and other reserves to protect higher education and rural hospitals in his area.
“What we’re trying to do is salvage the rest of this year,” Shadoin said.
By using stopgap funds, Edwards proposes to shield colleges, K-12 public schools, prisons, the TOPS college tuition program and the state’s child welfare agency from cuts.
Hanging over the philosophical debate is the memory of eight years of the Jindal administration, when the state repeatedly used temporary financing - including multiple dips into the rainy day fund - to plug budget gaps.
Jindal and lawmakers patched together budgets year after year with raided savings accounts, property sales and other one-time financing, rather than raising more revenue or cutting enough spending to match Louisiana’s ongoing programs to its annual income.
The maneuvers created continued budget problems as the short-term dollars disappeared and had to be replaced.
Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, invoked the ex-governor’s name as she described her reticence to use the rainy day fund to help eliminate this year’s deficit.
“If we’re using one-time money to fill up this budget hole and we’re just backfilling, we’re just doing the same thing that Jindal did for the past several years,” she said. “We’re still going to have programs and services that we have to pay for next year, and how do we do that?”
Davis wasn’t a lawmaker during the Jindal era. Many of her colleagues who are now objecting to Edwards’ plan, however, were among the majority during Jindal’s tenure who voted repeatedly for the short-term fixes.
As Edwards’ term began, lawmakers and the governor said they intended to stop the shell games, which Edwards criticized when he was a state House member and Jindal was governor.
The budget crafted by Edwards and the Legislature didn’t contain the patchwork financing when the fiscal year began on July 1.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser, said there’s a “clear distinction” between the Jindal-era budgeting tactics and Edwards’ approach.
Dardenne said using reserves to stop deep, midyear cuts when income doesn’t come in as expected isn’t the same as Jindal’s use of temporary financing to build a budget at the year’s start.
“The time to address long-term spending reductions is when the budget is enacted,” Dardenne said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
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