JR Ball: Making dollars-and-cents of the Louisiana Legislature

This much seems certain: There will be no meaningful budget or tax reforms in Louisiana as long as there’s a Democrat living in the governor’s mansion while House Republicans claim the state Capitol as their domain.

One ruling side believes more revenue is needed—or at least as much as last fiscal year—to balance a state budget where the general fund creeps ever-closer to $10 billion. The other is adamant the budget is riddled with waste and is demanding spending cuts. Never mind the fact no living human has yet to propose enough cuts to plug what’s expected to be a $994 million shortfall next fiscal year.

Given that reality, tell me what’s possible other than gridlock and stopgap solutions?

Gov. John Bel Edwards can preach all he wants about the need for compromise—as he did on President’s Day to open a scheduled 17-day special session—but in today’s political climate that’s like asking a pair of screaming two-year-olds to work out amongst themselves who owns the binky.

It ain’t gonna’ happen.

This refusal to do the right thing—to do much of anything, really—comes despite stacks of studies from blue ribbon panels, good government groups, concerned business leaders and well-respected economists telling our governor and legislators exactly how to make sense of a nonsensical tax code while at the same time keeping our corporate rates competitive with the blessed Texas.

Our so-called elected leaders won’t do what they all know needs to be done because every ridiculous exemption, tax credit and entitlement has a constituency that ardently believes self-interest trumps the greater good each and every time.

The second verse—doing something about the disaster that is statutorily dedicated funding—is the same as the first. Each of these dedications can be eradicated with a simple majority vote in the state House and Senate, but legislators—craving campaign cash and re-election above all else—refuse to risk upsetting some myopic special interest group. Which explains why health care and higher education gets gutted every time these goombahs fail to do their job.

It might be wise for Gov. John Bel Edwards—and anyone else who helped repeal (Stelly)—to take a good, long look in the mirror before dumping every one of Louisiana’s fiscal problems on Bobby Jindal’s University Club doorstep.

You want compromise? Check out what’s happening at the latest budget-fixing special sessions.

House Republicans, embracing the reality there’s no way to make enough cuts to offset nearly $1 billion in expiring sales taxes, are saying the only revenue-raising idea they’ll consider is making permanent one-quarter of the expiring 1% sales tax along with eliminating some sales tax breaks. In other words, the bill by state Rep. Stephen Dwight, a Lake Charles Republican, would reduce the state’s current 5% sales tax rate to a permanent 4.25%.

Everyone was pretty much on board with the plan when the session started, including Democrats who disdain regressive sales taxes and Edwards, who said in the weeks leading up to the session he would not accept higher sales taxes as a fiscal cliff solution. At this point, it seems, the governor is willing to sign anything the GOP-controlled Legislature puts on his desk.

Then the fun started. First, Rep. Clay Schexnayder, a Republican from Gonzalez, tried to amend Dwight’s bill, making implementation contingent upon approving Republican-backed measures to contain state Medicaid costs, make the Louisiana Checkbook site a reality and implement a new government spending cap.

That power play—as one might expect—angered Democrats, with Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, declaring the only way the Black Caucus would now support a state sales tax higher than 4% is if Republicans agree to reduce a state tax deduction for those who itemize on their federal tax returns—something typically done by the wealthier among us.

Chaos, of course, ensued.

There are those who suggest none of this budget bickering would be taking place if former Gov. Bobby Jindal had not signed off on the repeal of the Stelly tax plan. That’s certainly the position of the Edwards administration. Worth noting, however, is our current governor, then a member of the House, was among those voting to rollback those Stelly-related taxes. It might be wise for Edwards—and anyone else who helped repeal those taxes—to take a good, long look in the mirror before dumping every one of Louisiana’s fiscal problems on Jindal’s University Club doorstep.

In the meantime, talk of reform will continue … but never happen.

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