State’s spending spree is over

When Gov. Bobby Jindal first took office, he called lawmakers to Baton Rouge for a series of marathon special sessions.

On tap, spending the state’s unprecedented surplus.

In an odd twist, the governor and state Legislature will soon reconvene to grapple with next year’s budget. The twist? The new budget, which begins July 1, is projected to be short more than $1 billion.

Commission of Administration Angele Davis told the Associated Press she wants to see low-performing programs cut and inefficiencies within agencies improved to shore up budget.

Even so, deep cuts are likely.

Louisiana does have a multi-million dollar “rainy day” fund that could ease the pain. Made up of a combination of past budget surpluses and oil and gas dollars, the fund was once known as the Budget Stabilization Fund.

Greg Albrecht, the Legislative Fiscal Office’s chief economist, told the AP that by year’s end, the projected balance in the rainy day fund is projected to be $854 million. With a super-majority vote of the Legislature, the state could apply up to $285 million on the budget shortfall.

It’s still too soon to know if reserve monies will be needed, Davis said. A revenue-forecasting panel will meet next month to project how much cash the state will receive for spending in 2009-10. With those numbers in hand, lawmakers and Jindal’s administration can better determine their next move.

In the meantime, what is known is the meter is still running on the state’s many government programs. And the two biggest unprotected areas lawmakers can dissect are higher education and health care services for the state’s poor and uninsured.

Since 2005, south Louisiana has come to understand firsthand the impact a lack of health care services has on the community. Metropolitan New Orleans’ health care problems have been felt across the state, including in Tri-parish emergency rooms and doctor’s offices. Cuts in an already suffering industry could be devastating to this region.

And as Jindal himself has repeated since announcing his intention to seek political office, the success of our educational system will determine the economic success of our state.

With tough decisions and lean days looming, it will be important to watch what lawmakers decide to do.