Treasurer John Kennedy wants to sell you legislative snake oil

You would think the people of Louisiana, still groggy from the Jindal hangover, would be wary of taking policy advice from a man running for a D.C. office on a platform of fiscal conservatism. We just witnessed Bobby Jindal dismantle our state government and file frivolous lawsuits (costing the state even more money) to use as talking points on the campaign trail. But Louisiana Treasurer John Neely Kennedy, who is launching another bid for U.S. Senate after his failed campaign against Mary Landrieu in 2008, somehow was given airtime to deliver the “Republican response” to Governor Edwards’ apocalyptic budget outcome for the state. You should be wondering, “Why is a person who is not even in the legislature trying to deliver a legislative message?” Apparently, other Republicans were wondering the same thing, and it’s quite obvious that Treasurer Kennedy is grandstanding.

Treasurer Kennedy did not so much deliver a practical counterweight to the Governor’s tax plan as much as he flat-out attacked Louisiana’s poor and working classes. Treasurer Kennedy implied that the budget could be remedied by invoking the specter of people going to the ER “to be treated for things like acne, to get a pregnancy test, to have a wart removed, to talk to someone about losing weight.” The scrupulous historian who hears this should have alarms going off. It sounds like the Reagan “welfare queen” story, concocted to distract the public from the real issues at hand. There is an element of truth to the over-utilization of emergency rooms, to be sure. Yet I have yet to see a news expose tackling the widespread epidemic of using them for acne treatment.

Of course low-income families are going to go to the Emergency Room for non-emergency conditions; if you do not have health insurance, there is literally nowhere else to go. The Medicaid expansion, which Treasurer Kennedy also slams, would open the door to incentivizing the use of primary, specialty, and urgent care facilities. By blocking the expansion, we would actually be contributing to the problem of non-emergency use of the ER. However, this causal arrow eludes Treasurer Kennedy; the man in charge of the state’s treasury either does not know this cause and effect relationship between lack of healthcare and over reliance on Emergency Rooms, or he is disingenuously hiding it to sound like a better conservative. I suspect the latter is the case.

In fact, it seems as if Treasurer Kennedy was banking on people taking him at his word in the Republican response (and subsequently voting for him in his Senate campaign). But don’t believe the hype. Closer scrutiny will reveal that his lines are hackneyed conservative tropes that promise quick and easy solutions but have no basis in reality.

For example, Treasurer Kennedy tweeted: “Cutting TOPS while keeping able-bodied, childless adults on the welfare rolls? You’re either serious about Louisiana’s future or you’re not.” Evidently, Treasurer either does not know that the federal government pays for SNAP benefits or he is counting on the public not knowing. But hey, it makes for a great talking point on the campaign trail!

Another red herring budget “problem” Treasurer Kennedy cited is the Louisiana Public Defender Board. I wish our public defenders were paid so much that we could cut their budgets. But having worked in the rapidly-dwinding Client Services Division of Orleans Public Defenders, I can tell you that there is no fat to cut. The Orleans Public Defenders is already facing a federal lawsuit for its inability to provide Sixth Amendment rights to counsel regardless of income. Even in tiny Plaquemines Parish, the public defenders are preparing to close their office in the wake of last year’s budget cuts. Again: It sounds great to blame low-income prisoners, but it does not have any realistic ground on which to stand.

Treasurer Kennedy wants to paint himself as an innovator of revenue-saving ideas, touting that he gave Governor Edwards 400 ideas to fix the budget without making damaging cuts or raising taxes. In fact, none of these ideas were his own; they were links to three studies done years ago, including one from 1995 and one from 2001. (Professor Mann, who teaches at LSU Baton Rouge, acquired a copy for himself.) But it sure made him sound like a brilliant policy analyst who had, after many hours of crunching the numbers, finally discovered the silver bullet to the budget problem.

Treasurer Kennedy also thinks that we can magically cut our budget deficit in half by eliminating fraud in our Medicaid program. Jan Moller, of the Louisiana Budget Project, says fraud exists in Louisiana’s Medicaid just as it does in every state. There is no evidence that it is any worse in Louisiana than anywhere else, however. Furthermore, the idea that we can eliminate systemic fraud from a budget in a month (roughly the amount of time the Special Legislative Session has to fix the deficit) is an absolute pipe dream.

Treasurer Kennedy has been employing the quip “Louisiana does not have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.” Again, that makes for a great one-liner, if only it were true. In terms of taxes, Louisiana has the fifth-lowest burden of all states (counting state and local taxes). Perhaps the spending problem we do have is the gratuitous tax breaks we give to companies that give so little in return.

For example, the State of Louisiana pays $330,000 for every new episode of “Duck Dynasty” and that the state paid $218 million in 2012 alone for film production. We paid $10 million for a Valero expansion at Norco creating only 43 jobs, and yet Treasurer Kennedy never went on the air to decry these actions. Instead, he demonized the poor and working people of our state, blaming them for our problems yet again. This sounds all too familiar, and we should be skeptical. Just like those late-night “miracle cure” infomercials on television, there is no real magic solution to this quagmire. We cannot do this without raising revenue, just like we cannot lose weight in our sleep – even though we would all like for it to be true. But just because we want it to be true doesn’t mean it is, and just because John Kennedy says it is true does not mean we should trust him more than any miracle cure product peddler on a 3am commercial show.

Unlike any impulse purchase, however, the product Treasurer Kennedy is selling promises to bring a lot of grief to the State of Louisiana. His product will close state universities, shutter hospitals, destroy the subsidy for severely-disabled individuals, ruin Hospice care, and force elderly individuals out of their homes. And that’s just the beginning of his sales pitch.