One of the most frequent criticisms of Louisiana's financial mismanagement is that much of the state's revenue is dedicated by statute to various purposes, and there is not enough flexibility in annual appropriations.
But the answers to this problem are elusive because of politics. Irresponsible budgeting by legislators is the root of the issue.
Now, a simplistic way of approaching the budget problem comes via the proposal for a tighter overall cap for state spending in general.
Absent better lawmaking, we question whether this will work.
We don't necessarily oppose the proposal by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, but we wonder if it is has been thoroughly examined. Pushing it through the special session, with precious little in the way of public hearings and discussion, seems a course that is bound to disappoint its backers.
The new plan takes a two-thirds vote of lawmakers and then approval by the voters as a constitutional amendment. It's a high hurdle that might be met after some study, but questions have a way of slowing down such proposals.
Today, Louisiana has an annual spending cap for the state budget based on a three-year average of personal income growth in the state. Over-riding the spending cap currently requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. The cap is rarely reached, because revenues are volatile — and that is in turn because our oil-based economy is volatile. Our tax structure itself is a mess.
Also, because of the vast influx of federal funds, given the hurricane recovery years we've seen over the last dozen years, personal income may well be a distorted measure. But all economic metrics will be somewhat susceptible to difficulties of measurement.
Instead, Barras proposes using income growth, along with calculations involving the state income forecast, state population growth and the regional Consumer Price Index.
On the day-to-day level, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne fears the formula is so restrictive it could trigger the need for two-thirds votes for even minor midyear budget adjustments. This is a formula for small groups in the Legislature to veto the will of the majority.
As a realistic matter, this would lead to extortion of program benefits or political projects from the administration in power, to gain the two-thirds vote to keep wheels on in state government.
On a more philosophical level, spenders won't like a restrictive cap. Their view, admirably expressed by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego: "I'm for some serious, some fair expenditure limit, but I don't want something that's going to tie the hands of the Legislature."
"That's the point of this exercise," Barras responds, winning that rhetorical argument handily.
Still, that doesn't mean that either man is completely right or wrong. A constitutional spending limit that would be difficult to evade might have Barras' intent in the exercise, but it just might have long-term problems.
Arbitrary limits have a mixed record in other states; politicians are typically ingenious at finding ways around such rules. That track record should be studied, in public hearings.