Doomsday Budget Preppers Have Arrived

Higher education officials, public school teachers and health care providers would like nothing more than an avalanche of state money to suddenly appear some time before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Many are instead coming to grips with the fact that additional funding is unlikely to emerge in time to block significant and severe budget cuts. There’s already talk circulating, in fact, about eliminating courses on campuses and closing parish health clinics.

But really, no one is quite sure what to expect in 2017 when it comes to the Republican-led Legislature and Louisiana’s Democratic governor.

Thus, the doomsday scenarios. They’re being crafted right now by agency and department heads across state government.

Such planning is wise, especially given the $304 million shortfall assigned to the final five months of the fiscal year. But it’s also politically shrewd as lawmakers march toward a special session. After all, nothing primes the session pump like a bit of political pressure.

The higher education community, in particular, is starting to push back against conservative lawmakers who don’t want to use the Rainy Day Fund to erase $119 million from the $304 million deficit. Some Republicans argue that the emergency savings account has been used too often in recent years — even as the Edwards Administration stands in the rains of fiscal uncertainty with umbrellas and quizzical looks.

If lawmakers do ultimately vote against using the Rainy Day Fund to address the shortfall, and they decide to implement deeper cuts instead, higher ed officials are telling them that instruction on college campuses would be among the first areas to get the ax.

The war cry is just a part of the first wave of lobbying on tapping the Rainy Day Fund. During the special session to come, a two-thirds vote will be needed to access the fund’s bounty — and already it’s shaping up to be one of the most important votes of February for the administration.

The fight is mainly on the House side, where the so-called “Gang of No” has created headaches for the governor’s team. Democrats claim that the gang of roughly 20 or so GOP representatives refuses to vote in favor of tax increases, but also won’t agree to spending reductions. Now some of the “No” members are also questioning the use of the Rainy Day Fund, as proposed by the administration.

So what’s the alternative? What happens if lawmakers do not adequately address the current fiscal year deficit?

At the state Department of Health, staffers have come up with one potential funding scenario that would shutter public health units in 16 parishes. (Again, this is a small piece to a much larger spending exercise and represents one of many unofficial options the department could use to tackle approaching budget cuts.)

If you’re looking for a single, comprehensive plan for this fiscal year — and for the special session that will likely begin next month — don’t waste much more energy on that quest. A few different avenues are definitely starting to emerge, but none of them bear the marks of a true compromise.

Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria, the chairman of the House Republican Delegation, presented his own plan to the Edwards Administration this week. It wasn’t endorsed by the GOP delegation, but that didn’t matter. Harris was trying to make a political point — he wanted to show the governor and others that there was a way to both approach spending reductions and avoid a special session.

Harris’ proposal to cut nearly $29 million from the Minimum Foundation Program for public education immediately caught the attention of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. LFT President Larry Carter countered that such a decrease would directly and negatively impact 7,250 public school children.

Carter, though, did offer his own suggestion on where to cut government expenses — and he put a target instead on the back of business and industry. “It is past time to take a hard look at the overly generous tax incentives that are pushing our state toward disaster,” he said in a press release. “The billions that are spent on tax credits, deductions and rebates have to be reined in.”

Also being discussed for potential inclusion on the special session agenda are fees that generate cash for departments and agencies. Increasing fees or creating news ones would be a quick and clean path to funding, which is ideal. Plus, it’ll be an easier pill — compared to taxes — for Republicans to swallow.

In other words, no one is safe. College campuses, health units, public school teachers, businesses and so on. If you get some kind of financial bump from the state, consider yourself firmly on the cutting board for 2017.

That’s a tough, but necessary, reality check for some folks as the doomsday watch continues. Begin your prepping soon.

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