That became painfully obvious in yesterday’s special session meeting of the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee in questioning and testimony by members of Edwards Administration officials. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne stumped for Edwards’ plan to use nearly $120 million from the Budget Stabilization Fund. He conceived this as a bridge to further fiscal reform that Legislature intends to investigate during its regular session in two months.
Dardenne bases this strategy on the recommendations forwarded by the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy, which looks at how Louisiana collects revenues. To him, “structural deficit” describes the inability to gather as much revenue as necessary to fund what Edwards wants to spend.
That completely talked past committee Republicans, who found their concerns voiced by Chairman Cameron Henry and member state Rep. John Schroder. With considerable irony, Schroder, whose bill established the task force, ripped its failure to address spending issues. He noted that the “structural deficit” that concerned him came from overspending and the unwillingness diligently enough to set priorities and make choices. He noted that by failing to address this issue it forced fiscal discipline onto the people – by taking more of what they earn which made them have to make spending choices – while absolving government of that task.
This came after Henry exposed a pattern of sanctimony and disingenuousness on the part of Dardenne. The commissioner kept alleging that, unless the Legislature came up with cuts, then it was irresponsible not to use Fund money. Henry reminded Dardenne that in recent days he had twice brought a plan including less Fund money and more cuts to Edwards, but the governor rejected it, making Dardenne unable to frame the issue in terms of legislative responsibility and forcing to light that it really rests upon Edwards’ policy preferences.
Then Henry presented and had successful amended his HB 3 that would increase the level of cuts beyond Edwards’ proposal while reducing dependence on a draw from the Fund. After its passage, state Rep. Rick Edmonds brought on his HB 8, which used no Fund dollars but removed money agencies had set aside through a hiring freeze and other tactics on Edwards’ request at the beginning of the fiscal year and also increased the amount of funds sweeps. That one Edmonds successfully amended and had passed. In all instances, all Republicans present voted for the measures and all Democrats voted against, except on Edmonds’ bill where GOP state Rep. Bubba Chaney additionally voted against.
Throughout, Democrats tried every script in the book to dissuade favorable votes. None had any face validity and in practice had no effect:
“Did you talk to the agency/stakeholder?” This attempts to delegitimize any request to cut agencies without extensive consultation as a strategy to run out the clock on the short session and inappropriately assigns a kind of veto power over agencies, who by definition never will want reductions – especially as the heads/commission members involved in almost all cases got there through appointment by Edwards, who does not want to reduce spending voluntarily. This makes backwards the process: it asks that instead of agencies responding to policy made, not having policy driven by agencies.
“We don’t have enough time to evaluate cuts.” This plays upon the structural advantage that Edwards as governor has, both in determining whether to call a special session and when to call it, and in utilizing the vast resources of the executive branch. Edwards planned things so that he could have time to summon information from the bureaucracy in order to circulate his ideas a couple of weeks ago, enabling him an opportunity to lobby for support and mobilize constituencies his proposal’s favor. But the shortness of the session mandates alacrity, and a number of methods exist to correct any egregious errors made in the process, even as legislator staffs, committees’ and the Legislature’s have considerable resources to provide for adequate vetting.
“This is a vital service/hurts people with less of it.” This tries to force acceptance of a premise that any request below what Democrats want causes such injury to individuals and society as to make it beyond the pale. The trick to it makes everything all-or-nothing or either/or: even one cent less spent brings disaster to someone’s life. The speciousness of this is apparent in several ways: the absurdity that Edwards’ plan exactly demarcates the line between acceptable service and disaster; the notion that agency heads lack the creativity to deploy resources to circumvent the worst consequences of relatively minor retraction of their resources; the assumption that everything is “vital” or not, when in actuality there are gradations and the state can jettison the least important without gravely injuring the life prospects of some citizens.
Simply, legislative Democrats consider whatever the Democrat governor determines as a level of spending the red line that cannot be crossed, and thus revenues must match that, regardless from where these come. Legislative Republicans challenge that conceptualization, saying that line shifts according to the willingness of the people to pay for his positioning. Unless one group changes its mind, this irreconcilability means one group must defeat the other for deficit resolution must occur. So far, that’s the direction things are headed.