JR Ball: Getting priorities straight in Louisiana

Here’s a pretty important conversation we’re not having in Louisiana: What’s the appropriate role of state government in our lives? More specifically: Where and how should our tax dollars be spent—or not spent?

This isn’t merely some philosophical exercise. Considering what’s been happening—or not—at the State Capitol the past two-plus years, these are “they really kind of matter” questions.

Clearly the governor and state legislators are nowhere near agreement on the answers. Instead, Gov. John Bel Edwards says he’s not a big government guy but keeps asking for more money to grow government. Meanwhile, House Republicans—and an increasing number of Senate Republicans—say they want smaller government but only shrink health care and higher education, complaining they’re not happy about it while casting votes to expand government elsewhere.

Complicating matters—if that’s possible—is we’re living in a time when our century-long love-affair with Huey Long’s populism is slamming headfirst into our more recent decade-plus passion for hating taxes.

It’s a political paradox that’s creating quite the conundrum. In other words, far too many of us—Republicans included—want Huey Long services on a Bobby Jindal budget.

Louisiana, we have a codependency problem.

Far too many of us—Republicans included—want Huey Long services on a Bobby Jindal budget.

At least in the past we were willing to fuel our habit not by taxing you or taxing me, but by sticking it to that “fella’ behind the tree.” Now, the most strident anti-taxers among us are declaring even the guy behind the tree is off limits—unless, of course, he’s living in poverty.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is telling anyone who’ll listen that business is already paying “more than its fair share” and has a fancy graphic—combining state and local tax burdens—to prove its point. And a growing number of individual filers—generally known as citizens—are borrowing a page from the business playbook by screaming, “Come after any more of my money and I’m outta here for (the supposed tax haven of) Texas.”

Let’s pause to take stock: Business and a majority of residents say they’re maxed out when it comes to taxes, yet the governor and legislators—regardless of party affiliation—can’t figure out a way to pay for all the stuff they say we want.

The time has come for all of us to get real before Louisiana slips any further into banana republic status. Seriously, at what point do we tire of being a national laughingstock? When does the joke about being better than Mississippi get old? When do we say enough is enough and start doing something about ranking last—or near last—in every stat that matters?

Yes, we do need a constitutional convention if we’re ever going to get serious about long-term fiscal reform. But, first, we need a constitutional convention—with delegates elected by voters, not politicians or special interest groups—to figure out this state’s priorities.

Any moron can bellow, “There’s too much waste in the budget and government is too bloated.” The hard part—the part that really matters—is putting one’s cards on the table and actually declaring where’s the waste and what’s the fat.

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Are we OK with state government paying for so many things that clearly are the responsibility of local governments? Indeed, it’s compassionate to financially assist veterans, first responders and families dealing with all manner of health issues, but who’s picking up the tab? Where on the priority list are K-12 education and higher education, not to mention maintaining and building roads and bridges? What responsibility does the state have to assist those in poverty? How about those living in parts of the state no longer able to sustain itself because the global economy long left them in the rearview mirror?

While tackling these vexing questions (and scores of others), let’s also consider: What systems are in place to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of public money spending, and what’s the protocol for 1) boosting the stuff that’s working and 2) junking the stuff that’s achieving little more than keeping a few folks on the public payroll?

Until this state gets serious about priority-based budgeting we’ll continue screaming past one another, with one side declaring the general fund is smaller than a decade ago while the other counters that it’s larger than five years ago.

What are the state’s funding priorities?

It’s a conversation we can no longer ignore. 

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