Opinion: Sam Hanna, Jr. – JBE Threatens; Higher Ed whines

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JBE Threatens;
Higher Education whines

Gov. John Bel Edwards probably feels he did the right thing by going on statewide television to outline a doomsday scenario that’s certain to unfold if state lawmakers don’t get with the program and approve more than $2 billion in new taxes in the special legislative session that got underway on Sunday February 14th.
While his intentions may have reflected forward thinking, Edwards misjudged the public’s reaction, particularly the governor’s projection that LSU would be forced to cancel its football season this fall unless the state treasury gets an infusion of cash. Likewise, the reaction was less than hospitable to the governor’s prediction that colleges and universities could possibly close and patients wouldn’t get proper health care lest the Legislature gets in a tax-raising mood and gets there quickly.

We caught a glimpse of the desperate measures the Edwards administration is willing to employ to get its way on the tax-raising front just a few hours before Edwards spoke to the people on TV. At roughly 3:30 p.m. on Thursday Feb. 11th, the Office of Student Financial Aid dispatched an email to colleges and universities across the state, notifying them that TOPS funding would cease immediately. With some $20 million to $30 million remaining on the balance the state owes colleges and universities for TOPS recipients, initial press reports indicated students would be expected to pick up the tab. Less than 24 hours later, the Edwards administration backpedaled and said it would be the colleges and universities, not the students, that must absorb the shortcoming in the TOPS program.
The word inexperienced comes to mind. So does immaturity. By the time state lawmakers gathered in Baton Rouge to convene the special session, the prevailing opinion was the governor’s televised speech was interpreted as chock full of threats and the likelihood the Legislature would embrace his drive to raise a boatload of new taxes was nil. Or about as likely as the U.S. Senate approving President Obama’s appointee to the Supreme Court to replace Judge Antonin Scalia who, unexpectedly died on Saturday February 13th.

By Monday evening February 15th, Edwards’ wish to take away excess itemized deductions that income tax filers can claim on their state income tax returns was dead. His plan to impose a new one-cent sales tax was in trouble, too. To surmise, a consensus was forming, and it spelled trouble for our friends and neighbors who long for the growth in government spending.

Granted, the revised budget deficit for the current fiscal year ($900 million plus) and for the fiscal year that begins July 1 ($2 billion plus) are daunting at first blush. Those deficits, however, are misleading and most likely don’t reflect a full accounting for every dollar the state has at its disposal or projects to collect in the coming year, regardless of the source.

Sorry, but I’ve grown a bit leery of believing every tale I’m told by public officials. As predicted in this space not long ago, higher education officials have led the charge thus far in the campaign to convince lawmakers that the only way out of this budgetary crisis is through tax increases. They’re a persistent lot, and their messaging is consistent.

But our friends in the higher education community fail to understand one thing. That is the general public couldn’t care less if a few colleges and a few universities were forced to close because the state is short of money. Instead, they’re concerned with their job security and whether their taxes may be going up.

Perhaps, the general public would pay attention to officials from the colleges and universities if they actually stepped forward with a plan to put the state on sound financial footing that didn’t entail punishing working Louisianians with higher taxes. Something along the line of a wholesale undoing of the state Constitution to give lawmakers more say over how every single penny is spent by the state would be a start.

Yet, this much is certain just a few days into a special session that was billed as a must to right the ship of state. That is threats backfire and whining won’t be tolerated.

Sam Hanna is a state political writer.