Jindal spending rhetoric begins to change

Naomi B. Jones
March 11, 2008
March 13, 2008
Naomi B. Jones
March 11, 2008
March 13, 2008

Gov. Bobby Jindal crisscrossed the state during his campaign complaining of “out of control” government spending in Louisiana, and now he’s proposing more than $1 billion in surplus spending and a $30.1 billion budget.

Jindal’s proposed budget tops the size of a budget he framed as irresponsible on the campaign trail, and the surplus spending mimics many of the spending plans approved by his predecessor and lawmakers whose priorities he criticized while running for office.

But Jindal’s calling his recommendations fiscally responsible – as the rhetoric from campaigning to governing has changed.

With the campaign over, the Republican governor is pushing several new and expanded programs and is proposing to continue many of the initiatives funded and sought by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Where new spending is proposed, Jindal and his budget crafters are calling them “strategic initiatives.”

Up first on the spending front is a special legislative session that began Sunday and that includes Jindal’s call for doling out a $1.1 billion surplus.

Among the biggest-ticket recommendations are $515 million for road, bridge and port projects and $300 million for hurricane and coastal protection programs. Jindal said it was a prudent way to invest a one-time surplus.

A year ago, when Blanco had a more than $1.5 billion surplus, she backed and received approval for $600 million in road repairs and construction, $200 million for coastal restoration and hurricane flood protection projects and $42 million for port repairs and expansions.

“It looks like they took the same form and filled in the blanks,” said Sen. John Alario, D-Westwego, calling the Jindal plan similar to Blanco’s surplus spending plans of a year ago.

When the special session wraps up in a couple of weeks, lawmakers will begin working in earnest on crafting a state operating budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

A governor’s recommendations usually factor heavily into the approved budget, and Jindal offered a $30.1 billion proposal for the 2008-09 year that continues most state services and programs and increases dollars on education and health care.

The price tag on Jindal’s recommendations is larger than the $29.7 billion budget for 2007-08 that he spent much of the governor’s race lamenting.

The current-year budget actually grew to $34.3 billion as new federal hurricane recovery dollars were added, so Jindal, his budget advisers and his legislative allies were quick to point out that the governor’s $30.1 budget proposal is a 12 percent decrease from the current year.

“We feel that we have proposed a very fiscally responsible budget,” said Jindal’s budget chief, Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis.

“I’m encouraged that the budget’s $4 billion less than the previous year. It’s refreshing,” said Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a Jindal floor leader in the Legislature.

But the entire decrease can be linked to the loss of one-time federal aid to help the state recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And direct state general fund spending is scheduled to grow by $551 million in Jindal’s budget.

For another comparison, the current year’s budget without hurricane disaster recovery spending is $21.7 billion.

When direct flow-through federal aid related to the hurricanes is backed out, the budget proposed by Jindal would be $22.5 billion, an increase of $800 million.

One notable difference from Blanco to Jindal: Blanco increased state government jobs by more than 1,000, but Jindal proposes a reduction of more than 1,000 vacant state positions.

Alario recognized that the Jindal administration and the current Legislature would get credit for cutting the budget, even though it wouldn’t represent an actual decrease in state spending. At a meeting in January, Alario said, “It’ll happen with or without us, but we’ll take the credit for it.”