Governor Bobby Jindal announced yesterday that he wants more authority to cut dedicated state budgets in times of economic distress. The governor says the state faces a $1.65 billion shortfall in the coming fiscal year, and that current restrictions hamper his ability to make necessary corrections to the budget.
As things stand now, better than half of the state's budget cannot be cut. Budget items are protected either by a vote of the legislature or by amendments to the state constitution. Protected budgets include the $3 billion Minimum Foundation Program that provides state funds to local school boards.
But higher education and health care do not have similar protections. For that reason, the brunt of budget cuts must be borne by colleges, universities and the health care system.
Over the years, lawmakers and voters have protected billions of dollars worth of programs from budget cuts. Some, like public education, are worthy of protection. Many others have won protection because they are in the fiefdoms of powerful political figures.
That is why Barry Erwin of the Council for a Better Louisiana has a point when he is quoted in Jindal's press release as saying, "We cannot continue to place key areas of government like higher education and health care at the greatest risk when major cuts are necessary."
At the same time, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers will fight to preserve constitutional protection for the MFP. We have a dog in that hunt, as they say.
The constitutional amendment protecting the MFP was first proposed by the LFT during the oil bust of 1987, after Gov. Edwin Edwards cut the education budget in the mid-year. Rep. Raymond Laborde and Sen. Don Kelly handled the legislation in their respective houses, and the amendment was overwhelmingly approved by voters.
Even in the worst of times, education must be seen as the key to economic recovery and to a brighter future for our citizens. If we are going to open the Pandora's box of protected budgets, maybe the right answer is to extend protection to higher education and health care. Like K-12 education, those are essential to the fundamental well-being of our citizens.
This story was covered here by Melinda DesLatte of the Associated Press; here by Ed Anderson of the Times-Picayune and here by Michelle Millhollon of The Advocate.