The campaign for the GOP presidential nomination recently presented one of its most entertaining episodes of the season as Gov. Bobby Jindal tried to tar his opponents with an epithet: “Greece.”
As in, Greece has been “cooking the books with complicated financial instruments,” which he says Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and presumably others, would do.
But not he.
Jindal is known, he says, for overcoming long-standing fiscal problems and delivering a balanced budget without tax increases, every year since 2008 when he became governor.
The state constitution requires a balanced budget. The Legislative Fiscal Office finished figuring out just what the Louisiana Legislature and Jindal did during the recent session, then reported last week that the budget isn’t actually balanced. In fact, it came up $4.6 million short of having the revenues necessary to fund the services receiving appropriations over the next 12 months.
“I’m glad it wasn’t more,” House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin said Thursday with an ironic chuckle. (The Jindal administration released a statement later that day saying it’s only the Fiscal Office’s opinion.)
But the Jonesboro Republican’s name is on the bill that, as law, allows state government to collect and use taxpayer dollars for fiscal year 2016, which started July 1. What Fannin was alluding to was the frenzy to fill a $1.6 billion deficit without field dressing higher education and health care. Lawmakers have been holding their collective breaths in hopes that an errant whiff won’t collapse this year’s $25 billion spending plan.
The truth is, and the Legislative Fiscal Office is the first to admit this, that their calculations are based on their best guesses about how much money 16 measures will actually raise. The budget could be even further out of balance.
Act 94, for instance, raises the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents and should, hopefully, generate $106.4 million for the state. But statistics also show that smoking drops proportionally with the increase in the price of cigarettes, a point argued by those wanting to raise the tax higher and those wanting it lower. Nobody knows how many smokers are going to quit now that the price per pack is well north of $6.
Then there is the litigation.
Its legal position might be wobbly — it claims that rolling back tax breaks equals a tax increase and therefore should have been approved by two-thirds of the legislators — but the Louisiana Chemical Association’s lawsuit could prevail, which would blow a $107.2 million hole in the budget.
A stronger legal argument, perhaps, could be raised by the corporations and people who filed extensions to the May deadline for state income tax returns.
When these taxpayers who filed extensions file their returns for last year, they will discover that how the state charges them will differ from taxpayers who filed their tax returns before July 1. These taxpayers, many of whom are unaware of the changes, likely would have a strong case for arguing that the rules were changed in the middle of the game.
Remember that this new structure was set up to get the money now. So anyone challenging the new rules need only to pay their taxes under protest to topple the balanced budget. That money becomes unavailable until matters are resolved.
What all this shows is that the wonky nature of the budget allows for all sorts of sweeping statements that are technically true but often misleading.
All politicians do it. Jindal is somewhat of a master at leaning on specific elements that support a narrow truth that then can be spun into a much grander point.
He was awarded three out of four Pinocchios by The Washington Post for telling Fox News’ Bret Baier that the gimmick passed by legislators to forestall his threatened veto really was “a tax cut for families whose kids are going to universities in Louisiana.”
The Student Assessment for Valuable Education program levies a fee on college students. But the taxpayer isn’t charged more, nor does he or she pay less in taxes. The tax credit for the same amount is assigned by the student to the institution, which then turns it over to the state for payment out of a fund filled with newly created tax dollars.
The scheme meets enough of the standards of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform to allow Jindal to claim he hasn’t raised taxes in an operating budget the Fiscal Office calculated will generate $719.9 million in additional tax revenues.
“This type of numbers magic only exists in the budget accounting world,” The Post wrote on July 14. “Such accounting tricks are the reason why many people hate politics. …”
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