This is a story about the $1.6 billion hole in Louisiana’s budget.
This is also a story about how Louisiana is so poor that — despite his White House ambitions — Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) didn’t budget anything for presidential primaries in 2016.
Last year, Jindal even signed a law to move up the primaries by two weeks to attract more national attention to Louisiana. But the money for those elections was nowhere to be found in the governor’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, as legislators discovered Wednesday.
“I have no funding for elections past the fall elections,” Secretary of State Tom Schedler said during a review of the governor’s budget before the state House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
Whose oversight was this?
It’s something of a mystery how this item, which everybody agrees is vital, got left out.
The commissioner of administration, Kristy Nichols, is responsible for Jindal’s budget. Each year, her staff meets with state agencies to decide on the funding levels that the governor will recommend. The secretary of state (who is elected separately) said he left his final budget meeting with Jindal’s people believing that he would have the $3.5 million needed to pay for primary elections in March.
Then the budget document came out in February. It took a couple of days before the secretary of state realized that he didn’t get enough to pay for any elections past the end of 2015.
“Our analysts came in and told us, ‘Wait a minute, this wasn’t funded,’” said Meg Casper, Schedler’s spokeswoman. According to Casper, Schedler’s office then contacted the Jindal administration, which confirmed that there would not be money for the presidential primaries.
Jindal’s people, though, point the finger at the secretary of state. “Ultimately, the discretion on cuts comes from the head of the agency,” said Meghan Parrish, Nichols’s spokeswoman.
“We gave him a targeted savings number, meaning that we gave him a target to hit,” she continued. “We cannot dictate where those reductions happen and did not advise him. He decides at that point what’s funded and what’s not.”
On Wednesday, Schedler conceded that the semantics could be slippery here. His office does have discretion over how it spends its money. But he said he alerted Jindal’s people in his reports that presidential primary elections would be among the things that would go if his budget shrank further.
Nichols’s spokeswoman said Nichols doesn’t remember having any such conversation with Schedler during their budget talks. Regardless: People in the Jindal administration have known for at least a few weeks that presidential primaries would not be held under this budget. Yet Parrish confirmed that as of Thursday morning, nobody in the administration had reached out—officially or informally—to express concerns about not funding the elections.
Schedler initially requested $52.6 million from the state general fund toward elections but got $47 million, or $5.6 million less. The state will use that money to pay for a governor’s race this fall, as well as House and Senate elections. But there won’t be anything left after that.
Though the secretary of state does control how his money is spent, the question is what else he could cut from his budget to pay for the primaries. His spokesperson explained that only two of his departments rely on state general funds: museums and elections. Already, the museum budget will be halved, saving $1.8 million and laying off 24 people in the process.
There will probably still be primaries, right?
Leaving the primaries off the budget doesn’t mean they won’t happen. Regardless of what the budget says, Louisiana law requires that the primaries be held and be paid for. It would take a vote by the legislature to skip having presidential primary elections in 2016.
This happened in 1984, when legislators claimed that they could not afford the estimated $1.3 million to $2 million to hold primaries that year. (The U.S. Justice department suspected there were racist motivations, though. “We cannot help but note the timing of the proposed change…on the heels of the announcement of the Reverend Jesse Jackson to enter the presidential race,” attorneys noted in a report.)
That year, Louisiana caucused. If the primaries are canceled this year, the Democratic and Republican parties would have to decide what kind of procedure they would follow to allocate delegates.
It probably won’t get to that point. “Obviously, we think the primary is important to give Louisiana a voice in the process,” Nichols told reporters on Wednesday. Her spokesperson said today that Nichols plans on contacting the secretary of state and working with him to make sure the funding is in place.
Compared with the scale of Louisiana’s budget woes, $3.5 million is not much. More than anything else, legislators seemed exasperated at the oversight.
“We’re going to work to solve it,” said Rep. Walt Leger, a Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “But to me it suggests that we need to be very vigilant, that we’re on the lookout on other items that may not be funded.”
Leger ticked off a couple of other “significant holes” in Jindal’s budget that the committee has discovered, including a missing $88 million that had been requested by a soon-to-open medical center in New Orleans.
Overall, health care and higher education will have to bear the brunt of the revenue shortfall because the rest of Louisiana’s spending is more or less inflexible.
The bigger blame game: Who’s responsible for the $1.6 billion revenue gap?
Most blame the $1.6 billion budget gap on Jindal’s rigid refusal to raise taxes, which originates in a pledge he signed with Grover Norquist, sultan of the GOP’s anti-tax wing. For years, Jindal has been siphoning money from dedicated funds or one-time payouts to make up for the state’s lack of revenue.
Now, even members of his own party are criticizing him for his management of Louisiana’s finances.
“They’ve used all the smoke that was in the can and all the mirrors that they could buy and now they’re out of tricks. Their solution is to gut higher education like a fish,” State Treasurer John Kennedy told the AP in February.
“What he has done, with a controlling Republican majority in the state legislature, is attempt to prepare the ground for a presidential run. And by spreading himself so thin he’s put his entire political future, as well as the state’s newfound Republican dominance, in jeopardy,” conservative Louisiana commentator Scott McKay wrote in the American Spectator last week.
The final twist is that Jindal now has a radical plan to raise $500 million by eliminating a business tax credit. Local business owners say the maneuver looks and smells a lot like a tax increase. (Norquist’s anti-tax group reviewed the proposal and has declared it kosher.)
So it’s perhaps a sign of how dire the situation is in Louisiana that Jindal’s Feb. 27 budget was missing $3.5 million for presidential primaries, and nobody raised a fuss until yesterday.
But it’s unclear whether Jindal would anyway want a primary in his home state, where a common complaint is that he spends too much time thinking about 2016 and not enough time minding matters at home.
Last fall, Democratic-leaning polling outfit PPP pegged Jindal’s approval rating at 32 percent.
Last week, Triumph Campaigns, a Mississippi polling firm, said his approval rating had plunged further, to 27 percent.
Correction: Triumph Campaigns is based in Mississippi, not Louisiana.