JR Ball: The sound and fury of tax reform

Interested in a little foreshadowing into how political life will play out next year once Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana legislators embark upon the mind-numbing joy that is tackling tax reform and balancing a state budget $1 billion out of whack? Then look no further than what’s playing out with the dueling House and Senate tax reform bills currently under debate in our nation’s capital.

The reality of what’s actually included in these bills isn’t what’s important for this discussion—like Obamacare, it seems the truth won’t be known until something actually passes.

What does matter is this:

  • Democrats universally hate both plans; middle-of-the-road Republicans support general concepts but are uneasy with many specifics; and those sucking at the teat of President Donald Trump’s popularity love the best of both plans and could not care less about the specifics.
  • The so-called guaranteed winners—large corporations and the super wealthy—are thrilled; the rest of us are pouring over the rhetoric and ever-evolving math to decipher if we’re a “winner” or “loser.” (Increasingly, it appears families in the $10,000 to $75,000 income range will be “losers.”)
  • No one is interested in addressing—much less solving—the very known underlying federal budget problem: the ever-escalating costs of the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs.
  • Every tax credit, rebate and entitlement program has an army of vocal defenders, armed and at the ready—with an arsenal of money and an armada of PR wonks and lobbyists—to annihilate the mere whisper of a cutback. And brace yourself for an all-out assault if some legislator dares to utter the word “eliminate.”
  • As is usually the case, the broadly-defined middle class will ultimately bear the financial brunt of any “reform” that’s ultimately approved—though everyone will go to great lengths to deny this truth.

I have clue zero about what Edwards will propose in his brand of tax reform, or what Republicans in the House will offer as a counter proposal, but does anyone doubt the clown show playing out on Capitol Hill will reprise itself once the spectacle of tax reform arrives in Baton Rouge?

Of course, we’ve been told these things before, but the can-kicking, accounting sleights of hand and patchwork of temporary fixes—like life—uh, finds a way.

No doubt, the political parties of the lovers and haters will swap, and the fundamental problem we’ll ignore is retirement debt, but the main plot points will be the same.

Oh yeah, there’s also this: Our elected “leaders” in Congress don’t have to bother with the pesky problem of passing a budget that’s actually balanced—a requirement that routinely proves quite the killjoy for the vote-facing folks here in Louisiana.

Nevertheless, we’re told can-kicking time is over—really over. We’re told state leaders—facing the expiration of more than $1 billion in temporary taxes and yet another fiscal cliff—have no choice but to not only reform and simplify a convoluted tax code but also bring sanity to the budget process.

Of course, we’ve been told these things before, but the can-kicking, accounting sleights of hand and patchwork of temporary fixes—like life—uh, finds a way.

With Trump, who claims to be a Republican, in the White House and still popular in these parts, our elected GOP folks in Washington, D.C., are stumbling over themselves to approve a tax plan—no matter how flawed and regardless of whether or not it achieves its stated purpose of stimulating economic growth while helping the middle class.

Here at home, Republican legislators—especially those in the House—and well-funded special interest groups are in no mood to give Edwards a win on something as major as tax reform. And especially not when there’s gubernatorial election waiting around the corner in 2019.

Also, many of these Republican legislators face re-election campaigns of their own and not one of them wants to run with a tax hike—or anything construed as pumping more money into the state government trough—on their record.

What about spending cuts, you ask? House Republicans and right-leading political groups have been carping for years that Louisiana has a spending problem. Perhaps, but no one in the Legislature over the past two years has been able to find much waste worth cutting.

Which brings us to the dilemma of entitlements where one person’s waste is another one’s lifeblood. As we’re seeing in D.C., once you give birth to a perk or service or program it’s almost impossible to kill. This reality is no different in Louisiana.

Consequently, what likely will happen next spring is a lot of sound and a lot of fury that ultimately will signify nothing.

In other words, after much preening, a stymied governor and rebel legislators will opt to kick that can one more time by simply extending those “temporary” taxes.

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