Alford: Questions about state spending on local government projects surface during budget crunch
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne recently equated local government requests for state tax dollars to finance projects to Mardi Gras revelers stretching out their hands for beads tossed by krews of lawmakers.
“That’s the kind of the mindset that has been created over the years and local government has been a big part of that,” Dardenne told a forum hosted last week by the Public Affairs Research Council, likening the State Capitol to a parade route.
So what was Dardenne going on about?
“Well, instead of using state tax dollars exclusively for state purposes, the legislatures and administrations of yesteryear have been directing a significant amount to local governments, which likewise generate their own money,” writes Jeremy Alford in his latest column. “It’s still happening today.”
In fact, Alford notes that during the current fiscal year it amounts to roughly $4 billion—or 44%—of the state’s $9 billion general fund, with most of the funding going to K-12 schools.
“Whether or not the state should be doing this at such a heightened level represents a series of perennial questions at the State Capitol,” he writes. “Should locals be on the hook for their own needs? Are local revenue streams from the state being politically negotiated? Are local projects really more important than health care and higher education? The issue really flares up in years like these, when budget cuts threaten critical services, taxes are being increased and revenues are being stretched thin.”
Alford says the dependency built up over the years can be traced back partly to the 1973 Constitution, which guarantees $90 million in revenue sharing for local governments.
“Moreover, supplemental pay for policemen and firefighters started out as a small supplement for sheriff deputies and street cops only, but ballooned over the years to include harbor police and basically anyone who has received POST-certified training,” he writes. “That’s all to say critics of state aid to local governments are fighting precedent and history.”
So what’s to be done? Alford says it’s difficult to fight the system in place due to constitutional and political protections.
“If lawmakers really wanted to tackle this issue in a real way, they would be met with opposition from their assessors, parish presidents, school board members, city councilmen and more—essentially every shade of local power broker,” he writes. “To be fair, all of this creates an unbalanced look into the state-local money train, because it flows both ways in certain respects.”