In most Louisiana legislative sessions, accounting tricks and political dodges are par for the course. Instead, legislators handling this year’s budget should follow PAR for the course of their deliberations.
PAR is the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. On April 10, it released a comprehensive guide to the budget while explaining how the state arrived at its current mess of a $1.6 billion projected deficit. On April 17, it released a long list of proposed solutions.
A lot of the solutions will take guts. But legislators are finding they no longer have the luxury of easy solutions — so if anything they do is likely to cause heartburn, they might as well show the guts to do the job right. In fact, voters are so tired of the annual bloodlettings that they may even reward lawmakers who do the right surgery for lasting health.
There are two big takeaways from PAR’s analysis. The first is that there’s not one big solution but a whole lot of smaller reforms that together could add up to create significant, enduring fiscal stability. The second (quoting from page 6 of PAR’s April 17 “Commentary”) is that it is “the general taxpayer whose interest should be foremost,” rather than any particular program or benefit favored in the past.
The good news, PAR President Robert Travis Scott told me, is that “the overall, fundamental approach has been accepted,” meaning that legislators this year finally seem to be examining every nook and cranny of state taxing and spending, rather than automatically putting some things off the table.
The bad news is that Scott doesn’t see those efforts bearing fruit yet.
“The legislators are too split,” he said. “There is no consensus. There are a lot of ideas but no real momentum behind any of them.”
As Gambit Weekly’s Clancy DuBos wrote a month ago, “Lawmakers are mostly throwing jelly at the wall and hoping something will stick.”
(As an aside: This is where gubernatorial leadership should enter in. Alas, the governor was last seen in Iowa or maybe New Hampshire; it’s hard to keep track.)
Nonetheless, some of PAR’s suggestions can serve as major building blocks — or, to keep the DuBos analogy, as particularly (and usefully) sticky globs of jelly.
First, with all the talk about rolling back the state’s business-inventory tax credits and/or eliminating taxes on inventories altogether, the first step could be to limit the credits to 80 percent of their value. This would save up to $90 million and set the stage for a long-term phase-out of the tax while providing localities time to find a better revenue source.
Second, the state could eliminate most educational assistance for textbooks and other expenses for private schools. With so many private schools already benefiting (indirectly) from voucher programs (which would not be touched by this proposal), there’s little good reason to keep this longstanding sop to nonpublic education. Savings: more than $20 million.
Third, the Citizens insurance credit passed after Hurricane Katrina has served its purpose and run its course. Eliminate it. Save $42 million.
Fourth, legislators are on track to limit the TOPS college scholarship program, against the governor’s misguided wishes. If anything, they still aren’t limiting it enough. They could save $34 million in the coming budget year by refusing to spend a dime more than the program is costing this year.
Fifth, as noted in an earlier column, Louisiana could hike its cigarette tax from 36 cents per pack to 75 cents and still enjoy competitive advantage in the region. The House Ways and Means Committee last week approved a bill raising it to 68 cents, which legislative staff estimates would create a $67 million annual windfall. By my arithmetic, that’s a conservative estimate; it could raise half again as much.
Those five steps would narrow the budget gap by $250 million per year. I’ve outlined plenty more, and so does PAR, and so (to his credit) has Jindal. And legislators, to their credit, are working diligently to find others.
The mess is not unsolvable. What’s needed is a strong whip-hand to drive the process. PAR, especially, has laid out the course. The question is, who will take the lead in pursuing it?
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@the advocate.com, and he blogs at blogs. theadvocate.com/quin-essential.