How bad can things get for public education in Louisiana? As the old song says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
On Monday, the Senate Finance committee killed any hope of increasing funds for public schools when it refused to increase public education’s Minimum Foundation Program by the traditional 2.75%.
Then on Tuesday, the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference revealed that we face yet another shortfall of perhaps as much as $100 million this year. That’s on top of the $319 million budget hole already confronting lawmakers as they struggle to balance the state ledger.
Anticipating a dark economic future, school boards around Louisiana are announcing Reductions in Force. In plain English, that means they are firing teachers and school employees.
The state has a “rainy day fund” that should be tapped to help stave off the growing crisis. But a deep and profound disagreement between the Senate and House of Representatives is keeping that fund off-limits.
Both Senate President Joel Chaisson (D-Destrehan) and Speaker of the House Jim Tucker (R-Terrytown) say they are willing to withdraw $198 million from the fund to help plug the budget hole. They have very different opinions about how and when the fund should be paid back, and that is stalling any movement on the issue.
Sen. Chaisson says the law allows the state to repay the rainy day fund when state revenues reach the peak of the post-Katrina economy of 2008. Rep. Tucker says the state must repay the rainy day fund next year, using revenues from a tax amnesty program.
If Rep. Tucker prevails, it means the rainy day fund cannot be tapped again next year, when another budget deficit is already projected. According to Sen. Chaisson, Rep. Tucker’s plan is therefore “absolutely pointless.”
The Revenue Estimating Conference must certify that rainy day funds are available for use. But decisions by the Conference must be unanimous. Both Sen. Chaisson and Rep. Tucker are Conference members, and until they come to an agreement, there will be no movement to fix the budget.
What are we to make of this awful situation?
LFT President Steve Monaghan says state leaders simply are not focused on the real issues.
“There is mounting evidence that this session is all about things that it should not be about, and is not facing the real issues,” says Monaghan. “They should be focused on the fiscal crisis, not just for teachers and school employees, but for all the citizens of Louisiana.”
For certain, this is a case of chickens coming home to roost. When the state seemed to be in good economic shape, lawmakers and governors doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary and unwise tax giveaways to corporations and high-income earners. Anti-tax demagogues rolled over anyone who questioned the wisdom of severely reducing state revenues.
And as bad as the situation is now, the governor and legislature still refuse to consider any revenue measures. The mantra of the Jindal administration is “we must do more with less.”
The sad truth is, you can’t do more with less. You can only do less with less. Until the administration and legislature come to grips with that reality, Louisiana faces a bleak future indeed.