As a new year starts, the political battles and debates remain largely the same at the Louisiana Capitol, with the state’s financial woes stretching into their sixth year and influencing most decision-making.
Lawmakers will haggle again about whether to raise taxes, fees and college tuition to fill budget gaps. Gov. Bobby Jindal will continue to butt heads with conservative Republicans who criticize his spending decisions and with Democrats who believe the GOP governor is less interested in the budgetary needs of Louisiana than in how his decisions position him on the national political scene.
Some things to watch in 2013:
• The Jindal administration and lawmakers have a nearly $1.2 billion budget gap to close in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That will be the top focus of the regular legislative session that begins in April. Leaders of public colleges, which have lost nearly $450 million in state funding since 2008, worry they can’t sustain more reductions. Health care services also are expected to be on the chopping block, even after taking the brunt of the most recent round of cuts.
• A group of conservative House members, who call themselves the “fiscal hawks,’’ have a political action committee, a message and a plan to push legislation that they hope could limit the use of patchwork funding to pay for ongoing services. The lawmakers have managed to create problems for Jindal in past sessions, and they look to do so again, arguing that Jindal’s method of piecemeal funding for the budget only continues the cycle of ongoing financial problems.
• Tax breaks and tax rates get renewed attention after lawmakers started questioning in the last legislative session whether Louisiana was giving away too much money and getting too little in return. Jindal’s pushing a restructuring of the tax code, with his plans expected to be unveiled in January. The governor wants to keep the revamp “revenue neutral,” so that any savings from eliminating one tax break would be used to lower taxes somewhere else. That philosophy will clash with lawmakers and advocacy groups who want to do away with low-performing tax breaks to drum up cash for the budget.
• Repeated health care cuts are increasing the political pressure on Jindal to reconsider his stance against expanding Louisiana’s Medicaid program under the national health care overhaul. Years of projected budget shortfalls could influence the debate over whether to tap into billions of dollars in available federal health care financing.
• Vouchers will be debated again. A state district judge declared as unconstitutional the way that Jindal chose to finance the program that sends students to private schools with taxpayer-funded tuition. So, lawmakers will haggle over how to pay for the vouchers and whether the state can afford the program with a more than $1 billion budget shortfall.
• Higher education leaders again will seek from legislators the authority to raise tuition, as even conservative lawmakers begin to question how deeply they can cut colleges without damaging education. Meanwhile, LSU’s governing board is using the new budget reality to push for a massive restructuring of its university system, amid criticism that the changes are coming too fast, with too little input and with too much meddling from the Jindal administration.
• The governor will continue to push for privatization of state facilities and services. Since he’s been in office, Jindal has turned over management of state-owned health care services and programs to private companies, outsourced a state employee health insurance plan and hired outside firms to do an array of tasks previously performed by state workers. Plans are under way to privatize all of the 10 public hospitals run by LSU, an effort carrying into the new year.
• With Jindal positioning himself as a new spokesman of sorts for the Republican Party and a possible contender for the White House in 2016, the GOP governor likely will be on the road regularly again and making proclamations that affect Louisiana citizens from other states and on national TV.
Welcome to political watching in 2013. It should be familiar territory.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.