Elected officials, staffers, lobbyists, donors, consultants, department heads and practically everyone else in the inner orbit of Louisiana politics are packing their bags and making final arrangements for the annual Mardi Gras soirée this week in Washington, D.C. Culminating in a dinner-dance and ball this weekend, the multi-day event transplants the Bayou State’s political class to the Beltway, where the bar at the Washington Hilton becomes known as the 65th Parish. The theme this year is “Land of Coastal Riches.”
For those who prefer higher praise over parades and princesses, there’s Gov. Bobby Jindal’s “The Response,” a massive prayer rally scheduled for Saturday on LSU’s campus. It’s competing with D.C. Mardi Gras this year, as well as another prayer rally organized by Democratic-aligned groups on Southern University’s campus. It has been dubbed the “Prayer Rally for the Soul of Louisiana.”
They represent the purest of Louisiana political choices. You can stay home and get some church or head north to the belly of American politics for what amounts to a non-stop party. Either way, you’re sure to find an avenue to lift your spirits before all hell breaks loose across the political and government landscape here. Come the morning of Monday, Jan. 26, things are going to get serious. Very, very serious.
This is the last week we can all claim ignorance on the approaching widening of the state’s budget deficits, one for the current fiscal year and another for the next. The Revenue Estimating Conference, which is charged with determining how much money the state has to spend (or, in this case, doesn’t have), meets on the Monday politicos will be returning from D.C.
No amount of praying at LSU and Southern will help us avoid more mid-year budget cuts, possibly as much as $100 million. Meanwhile, the 2015-2016 budget hole, already $1.4 billion, will grow as well. As for how much, no one is saying. It has many lawmakers bracing for their worst regular session in recent memory, with the nightmare convening April 13.
Who can blame legislators for wanting to drink and/or pray? In addition to the budget chaos, voters are clamoring for something definitive on Common Core, an issue that will pack committee rooms and hallways with teachers and parents ready to scream at lawmakers, if last year is any guide. Additionally, the $12 billion backlog for transportation projects has reached critical mass, with no consensus solution in sight, and the capital outlay budget for construction projects around the state is set to be overloaded once again.
The parade of tears, however, won’t stop with Ash Wednesday or even the adjournment of the session on June 11. For whatever decisions lawmakers make, should they be courageous and divisive reforms or soft and temporary answers, will be carried over to their re-election campaigns this fall. And that’s what this entire year is really about: a jam-packed ballot of fall elections.
It’s going to be a banner year, with assessors, sheriffs, legislators and statewide elected officials running. But the big show appears atop the ballot, pitting some serious players against each other for governor. January hasn’t even concluded yet and we already know practically all of the fundraising numbers from the previous year and the first official gubernatorial forum has been held. It was conducted last week, with all four major candidates in attendance.
The forum, which focused on infrastructure issues, was civil, although you could hear the tension bubbling below the surface. It’ll likely be among the last times we see the candidates shaking hands and joking around. The knives will come out sooner than later, especially when you consider the number of super PACs rumored to be entering the fray. They’ll allow the campaigns to go negative without the candidates getting dirty, since super PACs can attack without coordination.
Finally, Jindal’s prayer rally marks the unofficial start of his presidential campaign. His focus may move further away than ever, leaving a leadership void in Baton Rouge. He’ll be more missing duck than lame duck.
We’re about to experience a dramatic change in Louisiana politics. But don’t mistake the coming week for the calm before a storm. It’s more like Fat Tuesday approaching midnight in New Orleans — and our cleanup will take years. So let the good times roll while they can. Our political hangover is right around the corner.