Year after year, politicians in Baton Rouge and in parishes and towns throughout Louisiana debate how much of our hard-earned money they must take to fund state and local programs. Spoiler alert: They always need more.
Where does it all go? Hardworking taxpayers simply don’t know how every penny is spent. And our taxes continue to climb. Today, our combined average state and local sales tax rates are the highest in the country and our income tax rate is among the highest in the region.
Louisiana is also one of only 15 states with a franchise tax, an antiquated system that other states have abandoned, which taxes companies large and small just for doing business in our state. This levy, along with the inventory tax, and our “structural shortfalls and declining revenue,” earned Louisiana the dubious distinction of having one of the 10 worst business tax climates in the country, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation. And the Pelican State also landed in the bottom half of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s “Rich States, Poor States” report that ranks states based on their economic competitiveness.
Louisiana’s unpredictable spending and taxation patterns are stifling our economy and hurting hardworking taxpayers. State and local governments are supposed to work for us, yet it seems we have little control over their spending habits. State government needs to be much more open and transparent. Now, there’s a chance to empower taxpayers and turn the tide. This year, leaders in Baton Rouge have the opportunity to establish the Louisiana Checkbook, a state-of-the-art tool that tracks every dime spent by the state government and reports it online in a transparent, understandable, and easily searchable way.
It would be a much-needed expansion of the state’s current budget transparency website, LaTrac, the Transparency and Accountability Portal that was created more than a decade ago and is far from user-friendly. Moreover, LaTrac is limited in scope whereas the Louisiana Checkbook would be wide-reaching and encompass spending data from numerous agencies, county governments, towns, and school districts.
A similar program, the Ohio Checkbook, has been in place in the Buckeye State since 2014. “Taxpayers love it and politicians hate it,” said Josh Mandel, the Ohio State treasurer who implemented the program.
The Ohio Checkbook has been wildly successful. After the Ohio state government put its spending online for all to see, other jurisdictions followed suit, including dozens of counties, hundreds of cities and towns, numerous school districts, and all state-funded colleges and universities, boards and commissions, and quasi-public agencies. And the numbers continue to grow. As a result, the state earned perfect scores for transparency two years in a row from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Providing similar transparency to the citizens of Louisiana would be an important first step toward the tax and budget reform that our state so desperately needs. Speaker of the House Taylor Barras recently made it clear that this type of reform is necessary for the state of Louisiana and should be included as part of the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations. I could not agree more.
Louisianans know how to spend responsibly — we do it every day. We make tough choices to live within our means. Our lawmakers must do the same. Hardworking taxpayers should have timely access to the reports and data that will keep them informed about where their tax dollars are spent.
On a recent Today Show segment offering tips “to get your spending under control in 2018,” financial editor Jean Chatzky said, “I love to tell people to just track their spending for a solid month at the beginning of the year. It is life changing, eye-opening. You see things that you never thought you would see.”
So what do you say, Louisiana, how about we give it a try for our state government?
John Kay is the Louisiana state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group. He lives in New Orleans.