When the Legislature convened its fiscal session a year ago, Louisianians expected lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal to streamline the state's bloated bureaucracy without crippling our future.
The Times-PicayuneLouisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.What we got instead was a one year fiscal Band-Aid.
So lawmakers begin this year's session Monday facing an even worse fiscal outlook. Despite $248 million in mid-year cuts, they may need to trim as much as $400 million more from this year's budget. Then, they have to slash another $1 billion in expenditures to balance the 2010-2011 budget.
To say that lawmakers will have to make hard choices is an understatement. Yet they must find the vision to look ahead and pass reforms that help stabilize the state's finances for years to come and end the current cycle of jagged cuts that are eviscerating vital services.
To that end, Louisiana has to significantly reduce its number of state employees and slow down the growth of salaries and benefits, which are asphyxiating the state's budget.
Despite significant efforts by the Jindal administration to trim the bureaucracy, Louisiana has more than 100,000 state workers. That's unsustainable. This session, the governor and lawmakers must pass serious measures to cut that number, such as state Treasurer John Kennedy's unsuccessful proposal last year to eliminate 15,000 jobs over three years. That would save hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
The state also needs to reform a structure that for years has led to automatic pay raises for most state workers. Last year, 98 percent of classified state workers got a pay hike. The number is down to 61 percent this fiscal year, and that's progress. But giving pay increases to six of every 10 state workers is still jaw dropping in the face of monster deficits and while most Louisianians are seeing their income drop or stagnate.
Legislators shouldn't buy the old argument that state workers deserve special treatment because they earn less than their private counterparts. That's just not true, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The department said private employees nationwide earned $27.42 in salary and benefits per hour worked in December, while employees of state and local governments got $39.60 in salary and benefits per hour worked the same month. The complete report is on the Web site of the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, at www.bls.gov.
Another fallacy is that the public sector needs to pay more to attract or retain employees. But governments are not having trouble filling positions, in great part because people are attracted to the relative stability of public work compared to the private sector.
Lawmakers also need to reform the state's pension program to adjust it to our new fiscal reality and to place it more in line with the benefits most Louisiana workers receive. That means revising provisions that let some state workers retire with almost full benefits at a very young age. Those terms were created decades ago, under more auspicious fiscal conditions and lower life expectancy. It's also unfair to ask taxpayers, many of whom don't have traditional pension programs anymore, to finance much better benefits for state workers, especially in the current economic climate.
Even these reforms would not be enough. Lawmakers also should make it easier to spread the pain of deficits, by expanding the governor's ability to make budget cuts across the board and at higher percentages than now allowed. Legislators and Gov. Jindal also need to have a frank discussion about repealing constitutional restrictions that have left higher education and health care exposed to disproportionate cuts.
Of course, Louisianians expect lawmakers not to make matters worse. Ignoring warnings of fiscal disaster, the Legislature last year passed unaffordable tax breaks, including a repeal of the Stelly tax plan that is helping balloon this year's deficit and will hurt state government for years.
Yet some lawmakers are still in fiscal wonderland. They have filed numerous bills that would exponentially increase deficits for state and local governments, including proposals to raise the already generous homestead exemption. Another ill-conceived measure, by Rep. John Alario of Westwego, would raise the state supplemental pay to most police officers, sheriff deputies and firefighters. Those employees provide important services, but their salaries and benefits seem competitive enough already. And every penny in additional pay has to be cut from other services, mostly education and health care, that have already been severely affected.
Most Louisianians appreciate the gravity of our fiscal situation and the need to publicly evaluate our state's priorities while protecting our future. Some lawmakers do as well, judging by some of their recent statements on the matter. They should not let this session go by without major fiscal reforms.