Lure of ‘rainy day’ fund foreboding

Past the halfway point, amid a great deal of acrimony, there is a strange feeling at the State Capitol that the legislative session hasn’t really begun.

That’s because the budget, the main event, is not yet moving through the legislative process. Until that happens, a sense of anticipation – if not foreboding – has set in. …

It is not that legislators and staff have”t been busy, and the legislative leadership certainly has been. The Senate and House leaders have been in negotiations over the first order of business, a supplemental appropriations bill that will cover the shortfalls in the current budget year that ends June 30.

The legislators appear ready to tap the “rainy day” fund to fill that hole, and then talk about replenishing the fund. Keeping some money in reserve, wisely, has been a key priority for Gov. Bobby Jindal. He and lawmakers haven’t demonstrated a lot of financial prudence in this term, but even they can see that the end of President Barack Obama’s stimulus funds will mean yawning gaps between revenue and expenses in the next two years.

To some extent, the late “start” of the session is because the governor is distracted, appropriately enough, by the protection of the coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil leak disaster. Still, there’s also a feeling that legislators want some sort of budget package that, while formally tending only to the current year shortfall and the 2011 fiscal year that begins July 1, also will anticipate the shortfalls of the 2012 fiscal year.

Without significant new revenue – and the state constitution forbids raising taxes in this year’s session – it’s hard to see what kind of “grand bargain” package would deal with problems so far ahead.

Nor does it seem in the public’s interest that a grim budget bill be rushed through at the very last minute. That would deny lawmakers – and their constituents – a fair look at what trade-offs are necessary to deal with the state’s fiscal situation.

The calendar is important: The foreboding about the 2012 fiscal year is important to lawmakers and Jindal. That year begins on July 1, 2011. That’s just before legislators and the governor qualify to seek re-election. A calamitous budget in an election year is something every politician seeks to avoid.

– The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.