There are a couple of legitimate issues on which conservative voters can disagree with Gov. John Bel Edwards. His support of teachers’ unions, perhaps, or his chuminess with the trial bar.
But to try to make an economic argument against the governor, whose fiscal restraint and political pragmatism bailed Louisiana out of a deep hole and set it on a sustainable path for the first time since, maybe, Gov. Mike Foster’s administration, is simply untrue.
Not that truth seems to matter much to anyone these days, least of all those who vote on the basis only of party affiliation as opposed to platforms, principles and records.
But Edwards’ opponents have repeatedly made claims about his expansion of government, with blind disregard to the facts and a convenient amnesia of the fiscal mess he inherited from his Republican predecessor, one-time wunderkind Bobby Jindal.
They care about just one thing: Defeating a Democrat.
It’s galling to think back on Jindal’s record and just how bad it really was. Even far-right GOP operatives, who now back President Trump and Edwards’ contender Eddie Rispone, in saner times admitted how badly Jindal screwed up the state’s budget—and, consequently, so many aspects of state government—as he attempted to advance his own delusional presidential aspirations.
It’s no wonder Edwards’ critics complain he hasn’t done more to “get us off the bottom” during his four-year term. How could he? When he took office, the state was on the brink of falling off a $1.6 billion fiscal cliff and higher education was still reeling from nearly a decade of budget cuts totaling roughly $1 billion.
To improve health care outcomes, graduation rates, and—this should come as no surprise—attract companies that will create jobs, you have to invest in things like Medicaid expansion, early childhood programs and higher education. That’s what creates a better educated workforce of healthy people, which, in turn, improves quality of life outcomes for everybody.
Jindal cut those programs, along with taxes. It took Edwards three years just to right the ship, which he did, with considerable help from his sage commissioner of administration, Jay Dardenne, a Republican, by the way.
Then, with only marginal support from the conservative Senate and despite of opposition from a far-right-controlled House, the administration not only stabilized the budget but created a surplus.
This is what you’re supposed to want. It doesn’t mean the budget is bloated or that taxes are too high. It means government is actually doing its job.
But why let reality cloud a good narrative?
The truth is that in four years under Edwards, the state general fund budget did grow, yes, but only by about 8%, from roughly $9 billion in FY 2015-2016 to $9.7 billion in FY 2019-2020. That’s just 2% a year, on average.
More significantly, the growth on the spending side was driven by long overdue pay raises for teachers and state workers, and investments in higher education, the latter of which received a much-needed infusion of $47 million earlier this year.
The state general fund budget, which is what people generally care about because that’s the part that is funded by our tax dollars, is a little less than one third of the roughly $30 billion overall operating budget, which Edwards is also accused of bloating, largely because he expanded Medicaid.
But that’s another fallacious argument. Under Obamacare, the federal government agreed to pick up 100% of the tab for the first several years of Medicaid expansion, and today still pays for roughly 90% of it.
That means a poor state like Louisiana was able to get a really cheap deal on health insurance for its more than 400,000 uninsured, impoverished residents.
How could that possibly be worse than having indigent patients seek treatment for common maladies in local emergency rooms, where hospitals would be forced to pick up the tab—because they cannot legally deny treatment to sick people—then pass on the cost to insured patients?
While on paper the overall general fund budget grew to account for this Medicaid expansion, between FY 2016 and FY 2020, the Louisiana Department of Health’s budget actually decreased more than 10%, from $2.7 billion to $2.4 billion.
At the same time, the state’s Medicaid population increased its utilization of primary care facilities and preventive care programs. That means they were able to take care of their health proactively for, perhaps, the first time in their lives, getting blood pressure checks, mammograms and diabetes tests.
There isn’t any readily available data yet on how much this will save our state and the health care system in the long run. But we know from the private sector and decades of experience that preventive care is a lot less expensive than chemotherapy or a lifetime of insulin dependence.
Again, there’s just no way around it.
Ah, but the argument goes, under Edwards and his Medicaid expansion there’s been a proliferation of waste, fraud and abuse because, ya’ know, poor people game the system so much more ably than the middle class and affluent.
In reality, while, yes, there have been instances of such, the fraud has been perpetrated as much on the provider side as on that of the patients. Moreover, the state has implemented reforms in recent months that resulted in the removal of 50,000 ineligible patients from the Medicaid rolls.
There will be much well-funded disinformation in the weeks to come. Don’t let fealty to partisan politics blind you to the truth about state government and its finances.