`Band-Aid' Budget Irks Louisiana Lawmakers, Voters

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER making more than $125 million in appropriation cuts, Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer (D) has given the state a balanced budget. But legislators and others say Louisiana's financial woes are far from over. Despite the cuts announced last week, the state must still grapple with declining revenues. Governor Roemer may call a special session of the Legislature later in the year to find new sources of revenue.

``We're dealing with our fiscal problems with a Band-Aid, and the Band-Aid is only a temporary solution,'' says state budget director Stephen Windham.

The governor's office, meanwhile, is taking its share of the heat for the problems in Baton Rouge. In addition, late last week the governor vetoed the Legislature's second attempt to put into law what would have been the nation's toughest anti-abortion measure.

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``Basically we solve nothing with this budget,'' says state Rep. Robert Garrity Jr. (R). ``The governor hasn't even come close to providing leadership.''

Although lawmakers faced a budget shortfall of more than $500 million when the Legislature started its summer session in May, few legislators offered solutions on how to stem the flow of red ink. By July 9, when the session ended, lawmakers coordinated their efforts enough to approve an $8.5 billion budget, but left unfunded more than $100 million in the operating budget.

The shortfall forced Roemer to cancel pay raises for police, firemen, and school workers, while also gutting funds for a state nursing program, and a $625,000 computer system for the mostly black Southern University of New Orleans.

Even with the cuts, lawmakers say Louisiana's economic condition is so shaky that another budget deficit is almost inevitable next year. Because of hard feelings between the Legislature and Roemer, however, many also say few solutions are in sight.

``There was a lot of anger in this year's session because Roemer gave us hardly any direction. So now when he wants us to suddenly come together on a budget, a lot of members had other ideas,'' says state Sen. Cleo Fields (D).

To make matters worse, lawmakers spent a good part of this year's session debating such controversial issues as abortion and flag-burning, putting budget matters on the back burner, and creating an atmosphere of confrontation.

``I've never seen the people in this state as angry as they are right now,'' says Mark Drennen, president of the Louisiana Public Affairs Research Council (PAR). ``Important issues have gone unaddressed, and I've yet to meet one person who feels that any of the state's problems have been solved.''

Mr. Drennen adds that because next year is an election year in Louisiana, ``there's not much of a chance that anyone is going to want to tackle these tough economic issues then either.''

Louisiana's economic problems stem from the state's failure to find a new source of revenue to make up for the money lost by the collapse of the state's huge petrochemical industry in the 1980s, analysts say. Almost 40 percent of the state's jobs were related to the industry before oil prices fell and unemployment skyrocketed.

In addition, according to Drennen, ``This is still a state where the overwhelming majority of residents don't pay any property taxes, so that's one source of revenue cut off from us.'' There is a property tax, but none on homes purchased for $75,000 or less.

Roemer may call for a special session later this year to consider a series of new tax measures, says Payton Smith, the governor's assistant press secretary.

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