Joel Robideaux, the Lafayette Republican, is not going to be running again for the House, having served the three-term limit. But he is still a believer in voodoo economics.
Well, that’s not exactly how he put it, but as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he was this year in the position of raising business taxes to pay for the state services he and his colleagues starved for the better part of a decade. Instead, in previous years, they raised college tuition and cut taxes and granted breaks mostly for big business.
“I think we passed that legislation with good intentions,” Robideaux said of the billions in tax cuts and breaks over a decade. At the Press Club of Baton Rouge, he portrayed the giveaway tax breaks as incentives for economic growth. “Hindsight is always 20-20, and maybe the argument can be made that we gave up too much, too fast,” he allowed.
If Robideaux is not backing off his support for the tax-cutting that has done little or nothing for economic development, neither is he in the least apologetic about taking some of that money back this year.
The Legislature had to buck Gov. Bobby Jindal with his proposal for additional cuts to higher education and health care, Robideaux said of “one of the most difficult budget challenges the Legislature had ever faced.”
By the House leadership’s reckoning, the business community got $2.7 billion in breaks over Jindal’s seven years.
Payback rhymes with rich.
Maybe Robideaux is too nice for this line of work: Most people saw fat-cat industries with their hands out and lobbyists paying to play with campaign contributions. But if there’s any truth at all to the notion of supply-side philosophers in the Legislature, the hoped-for boom in tax revenues was not coming — and even the legislators had to admit that, once the flim-flam of the voodoo wore off.
Budgetary gimmicks and “tax amnesties” of the past few years had been exhausted; Jindal’s budget proposal was both harsh in its outlines and ill-thought-out in its details; the House and Senate had to generate revenues, even with sharp disagreements among members and the governor about ways and means.
And there was the inevitable opposition of the long-coddled business lobbyists.
Robideaux is not eligible for another House term; he is running for Lafayette city-parish president. But were he up for re-election, he said, people know that legislators had to “solve the problem,” including squeezing state agencies for cuts before raising taxes, but not flinching from the task once the numbers made it necessary.
“We never tried to hide where we were getting the revenue from,” he declared.
Politically, he’s probably right. Is there any groundswell of opposition to the business taxes, except from an indignant Louisiana Association of Business and Industry? Are Republican lawmakers who seek re-election going to be turned out by a wave generated by the state’s hapless Democratic Party?
It seems unlikely that LABI and other business lobbyists have the clout to change the political calculus this fall. Robideaux dismissed the possibility: “When you give them 10 M&Ms and then you come back and say, ‘Look, we’re only giving you eight,’ and they holler and scream that they’re only getting eight M&Ms, it’s kind of hard to sympathize with them.”
It’s not as if this is permanent, anyway. Robideaux’s across-the-board cuts in incentives are poor substitutes for direct and reliable taxes. A new governor and Legislature might put LABI back on a candy diet. And maybe the economy’s ready to boom because Robideaux and his colleagues cut taxes for years, to the point of budgetary crisis.
If more disastrous cuts were avoided this year, the money raised doesn’t begin to restore state colleges and universities. The tax code remains a mess.
The poet Heine had a line about the worthless acts often done quite well. That’s what the achievements of Legislature 2015 amounted to.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.