Louisiana through the Looking Glass

TOPS and Tigers

On the night of February 11th, I may have seen something that has mostly escaped me in my over half century of living in Louisiana, a genuine attempt at political honesty. Two days after the cacophony of Mardi Gras had died away to be replaced by the solemnity of Ash Wednesday the newly elected Governor of the Bayou State came before his electorate. Just one month after his inauguration John Bel Edwards had some bad news for state he is now charged with leading.

Edwards brought us together Thursday night to tell us he had “devastating facts from our state’s economists showing that we are in an unprecedented position.” He then proceeds to lay out the details of what has become the largest budget deficit in Louisiana’s history. Before the current fiscal year ends on June 30th this budget shortfall is projected to reach nearly $1 billion followed by a $2 billion deficit for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1st. The details revolve around the state’s revenue which has fallen $570 million below expected levels and $370 million in financial commitments the state is unable to meet.

As he presented the facts, as he has come to understand them, a very bleak picture is painted of the current economic reality and the projections for the coming year. The imperative of raising additional funds and making significant cuts is forcefully put forth in the Governor’s address. He pleads for the avoidance of the “Washington-style” politics of partisan contention and emphatically declares that these are the facts on the ground and not scare tactics. The immediate response from the right was to label the speech as liberal partisan politics and Democratic scare tactics. The official Republican response from John Kennedy, the State Treasurer, wasted no time in accusing Edwards of wanting to” implement the largest tax increase in the history of Louisiana.”

For the average citizen of Louisiana suffering from PADD (political attention deficit disorder) there were two particular parts of the speech that tickled there Fox News tuned spider senses. Edwards explained that budget cuts to education threatened the TOPS scholarship fund (the state fund that allows qualified students to attend Louisiana state universities for little or no cost) and could affect the eligibility of student athletes to compete next semester. Of course he said much more about the damage that could be done to higher education in our state but judging by the social media response the two issues were definitely free tuition and football.

And so it began, soon Facebook was knee deep in recall petitions and calls for the impeachment of a governor that has held office for barely a month. We are regaled with the wit and wisdom of Trump supporters and Tea Partiers who explain the inevitability of Democrats coming after your tax dollars to fund their many entitlement programs. John Kennedy was quick to lay a large part of the blame for fiscal woes on Medicaid and Medicare fraud and waste. In plain Trump-logic this equates to the LSU Tigers unable to play next year because too many poor people are going to the emergency room on the government’s dime to get their acne treated or their warts removed.

The elephant in the room, the mostly unspoken of guest in most of the Facebook rants, is our beloved former Governor Bobby Jindal. It’s not that the facts aren’t evident enough that even Mr. Kennedy was forced to acknowledge his roll. Lost in Kennedy’s standard Republican talking points was his honest assessment that “For seven years the Louisiana Legislature, at the encouragement of the then Governor, spent more money than it took in.” He goes on to explain that the deficit had been covered up by “raiding every single state savings account it could find and using every accounting gimmick in the books.” These truths are lost on the masses that look for solutions in soundbites and cannot see past the good guy-bad guy/right-left worldview.

If Edward’s words were indeed scare tactics they seemed to have been somewhat successful, by simply implying a threat to the TOPS program and the LSU Tigers he has managed to focus more attention on Louisiana’s fiscal crises in one day than a years’ worth of articles and op-eds managed to do prior to the gubernatorial election. A simple Google search will yield an abundance of results such as the June 2015 Newsweek article titled “How Bobby Jindal Broke the Louisiana Economy” or the February 2015 American Conservative piece titled “How Bobby Jindal Wrecked Louisiana.” They all tell document the same financial mismanagement highlighted in Governor Edward’s speech months before the first vote was even cast in his favor.

The story is of a Rhodes Scholar who was elected Governor of Louisiana in 2008 and upon taking office inherited a $1 billion surplus from the previous administration. There were high hopes in state Republican (and some Democratic) circles that the well-educated technocrat would bring good governance and fiscal responsibility to Baton Rouge. Political pundits were soon singing his praise such as Rush Limbaugh who dubbed him “the next Ronald Reagan.” Steve Schmidt went so far as to predict that “the question is not whether he’ll be president, but when he’ll be president.” Thus Bobby Jindal the Governor began his metamorphosis into Bobby Jindal the presidential candidate.

Throwing his support behind the largest tax cut in his state’s history and pledging his soul to the Grover Norquist no tax philosophy paved a path that quickly burned through the state’s $1 billion surplus. In his defense the momentum for the tax cut began in the Democratic administration that preceded him and Jindal initially opposed it as a giveaway to wealthy interest. That principled stance easily gave way to his presidential ambitions however.

The rest of the story is a financial train wreck as Jindal aligned himself to the governing philosophy and fiscal policies of the GOP base. Government subsidies to wealthy individuals and corporations were a signature of his administration. The Robertson clan of Duck Dynasty fame received over $300,000 per episode of their television show filmed in Louisiana. Walmart raked in nearly $700,000 in subsidies to build stores in two affluent suburbs while Valero Energy Company was gifted $10 million to cover the cost of a refinery expansion that produced 43 jobs. This strategy continued to make him the poster child for conservative commentators but it came at great cost to the Louisiana taxpayers.

The accounting gimmicks referred to by John Kennedy involved a myriad of fixes using funds meant for uses besides covering holes in the state budget. These tricks got Jindal through his two terms without having to declare a direct threat to TOPS or Tigers but it left in its wake things like the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly which had $800 million in reserve and now has $0. In like manner some $270 million was lost from the state’s rainy day fund as well as $450 million in development incentives. Add to this the highest rate of disinvestment in education in the nation and we get a small picture of the financial woes conveyed by the governor-elect.

Jindal did prove to be an efficient multi-tasker as he successfully vetoed any attempt made by the Louisiana Legislature to produce more revenue if it violated his Norquist no-tax principals while managing to be out of state for 165 days in 2014 as his presidential bid was building steam. As he exited the governor’s mansion at the end of 2015 the $1 billion surplus of 2008 had been replaced with a projected $1.6 billion shortfall. As he tried to gain traction on the campaign trail that fall his popularity in Louisiana hit a low of 27%.

All of this begs the question, why all the torches and pitchforks for the new governor who simply stated the economic reality that had been more than apparent for over a year in the local and national press? What would be the logic in a recall one month into his term after allowing eight years of gross fiscal negligence from the former office holder? Is brutal honesty about the risk to health and services brought about by this historic deficit a crime?

The crime, of course, is that a Democrat was elected governor by a Red state in 2016. This was brought about because the Republican candidate, David Vitter, was so toxic that a great many Republican voters simply stayed home. Now this same Democrat has leveled veiled threats at some cherished Louisiana institution and that cannot be tolerated. At stake here is the admittance that the fabled trickle-down Reaganomics of GOP mythology simply does not work. A properly functioning government cannot exist on only tax cuts and subsidies and its responsibilities to the poor and marginalized cannot be characterized as waste.

To say that there was no political motives to Thursday’s speech by John Bel Edwards would be foolish. Politics, poles, and elections are a part of our system of government and always have been to one degree or another. Edwards’s speech is a call for politics; the politics of debate, negotiation, and compromise in the cause of governance. It’s a call for the adults to enter the room and put aside punditry and campaign rhetoric and find solutions to the problem that confronts Louisiana. His analysis comes from a man confronted with the responsibility of the office he now holds while the response of Treasurer Kennedy was tainted by his campaign for a senate seat in the next election. The question we need to ask is can we look at truth as it stands or must we continue to define it through the looking glass of partisan divisions. Will the citizens of Louisiana push all their elected officials to find real answers are will they be consumed with quixotic Facebook quest, recalls, and impeachment that do nothing but distract attentions and ignore reality?

Michael "T. Mayheart" Dardar (dardarmayheart@gmail.com) was born in the Houma Indian settlement below Golden Meadow, Louisiana. He served 16 years on the United Houma Nation Tribal Council. He currently works with community-based groups advocating for the needs of coastal indigenous communities in south Louisiana. He is the author of Istrouma: A Houma Manifesto. Read other articles by T. Mayheart Dardar, or visit T. Mayheart Dardar's website.