Closing colleges and rationing care at the charity hospitals, as the budget crisis plays out in Louisiana a new impending disaster appears in the news every day. In this litany of doom, one consequence and the reaction to it perfectly sums up the deeper challenges facing our state-no LSU football next year. When the governor broached that possibility, the reaction was by far more passionate and engaged than before. Considering that the state had just suspended payments to TOPS scholarships and that the season’s cancellation would have been the result of closing the universities because they couldn’t afford to keep them open or pay the professors did not seem to register. It is like complaining about a scratch on your new car when the reason for the scratch was the car crashed into a tree after the engine fell out as you were evading the repo man. In short, we are getting excited about the wrong things and overlooking what caused the problem in the first place.
The deficit is the immediate crisis facing the state, but it is only part of, and the least important part of, the problem. Louisiana’s structural problems have three parts. If we do not address all three, our state will continue to fall further behind and we will bequeath our children a lesser state than we were given. The problems are: the deficit that must be closed by July; the structural problems in our Constitution and laws that hinder good government and restoring faith in the government’s efficiency, integrity and competence. All three must be addressed for the cycle of instability and chaos to stop.
The recurrent and worsening budget deficits get most, if not all of the attention. When times are flush, money flows everywhere with no regard for the future. When times are hard, the smoke and mirrors come out with the only priority being squeaking through for another year. While the immediate budget shortfall must be addressed, let us not lose sight of the structural problems that cause this to happen time and again. Any measure to solve the deficit with taxes should be short term and meant to fix the immediate problem. The purpose of the taxes should be to buy us time to address the uderlying problems and no more. Having the highest sales tax in the nation will do our state no good and should be no more than a temporary measure for clear and well defined goals and not one minute more than is needed.
Removing structural impediments to transparent and efficient governance is the next step. It won’t be easy. This mess has been percolating for decades as more and more of the budget is hidden in protected nooks and crannies by constitutional and statutory dedications. The present system virtually guarentees waste and bloat, preventing a rational and efficient budget from being built. Over the years more and more interest groups have been able to ensconce their pet interests into the Constitution. Instead of doing the hard work of actually balancing needs and availible resources, the very basis of governance, our leaders have abdicated more and more over the years. Instead of facing a contentious vote, they get to plead that their hands are tied as the money was protected. It may be great political cover, but it is no way to run our state. The layers of constitutional provisions and laws were built up over decades and will not be easily fixed. I realize that a constitutional convention will not be easy and it opens up the possibility of unintended consequences, always a concern with our dysfunctional politicians, but it must be done. We simply cannot go on like this.
Lastly, is the hardest step-restoring faith in the goverment’s transparency, honesty, fairness and competence. This will be the most difficult part, even harder than fixing the structural barriers, as it goes to “man in the mirror” stuff. We are all complicit in this mess. We elect the politicians. We tolerate the corruption, cronyism and incompetence. “It’s the Louisiana way” I must have heard that a thousand times when I moved here twenty years ago after leaving the Air Force. Nonsense! Is it somehow divinely ordained that our state be mired in poverty, last in all the good lists and first in all the bad ones? Are our children so hopelessly dense as to be incapable of being educated? Have we become so used to bad government that we just accept that “It’s always going to be that way”? The key to our future stares back at us in the mirror each morning.