“The day of reckoning is at hand.”
This was not the preacher opening the Legislature’s second special session of the year, but the governor himself, with the tone of Scripture — though very much of the Old Testament, replete with stern admonitions that lawmakers accept the stony path of tax increases leading to a promised land.
John Bel Edwards’ statements reflect the urgency that he feels with the budget for the coming year starting July 1. With the state facing between $450 million and $600 million in red ink, Edwards proposes raising more taxes in addition to the $1.2 billion raised in the first special session.
Since the first special session, the gaps in state funding for institutions and individuals are more obvious because the Legislature under the constitution had to adopt a formal budget based on the money already available. That budget is filled with holes that no one wants to accept, with reductions in the popular TOPS tuition grants and other major programs affecting schools, hospitals and colleges.
Edwards’ speech was an indictment of what he rightly called the irresponsible budget practices of his predecessor, Bobby Jindal. Edwards was in the House for Jindal’s two terms: “I sat where you are sitting right now, and listened to a governor make empty promises and pretend all is good. I will not do that.”
No more duct-tape revenue estimates or raiding trust funds, budgetary gimmickry that all too many legislators swallowed whole during Jindal’s two terms. As Edwards said, it will take a lot of money and a commitment to honest budgeting over the next several years to fix the mess. Republican or Democrat, any new governor would have had to face the financial consequences of the Jindal years.
The governor rejected wishing and hoping, the argument by a few in the House that a special session should not be called until new revenue estimates are prepared. The experts, Edwards said, are not fortune tellers, and might well find that revenues come in lower than estimated; Wall Street bond rating agencies are watching Louisiana closely, Edwards added, because they understand the shaky nature of state finances.
While these arguments were not new, they were forcefully delivered to a Legislature that is tired but also torn internally. Edwards quipped that he had not intended to address one major priority, the construction budget, because he thought lawmakers would pass that in the regular session. They failed to do so, leaving the leadership of the House in disarray and senators angry with their colleagues across the hall.
What is the promised land that this unruly flock is headed for?
What we think is most important of what Edwards said may be lost in the jeremiads. That is that new taxes ought to be raised consistent with the broader tax reform plans now under development by expert panels earlier established by the Legislature.
The governor reiterated Tuesday that the income tax increases he proposes are consistent with the outlines of a major tax reform agenda that can and should be the subject of debate in the 2017 session. Other tax changes also are intended to be “a down payment on long-term, comprehensive tax reform that we will tackle in April 2017,” Edwards said.
Nobody likes to pay higher taxes and as Edwards said, no politician likes to vote for them. The lack of alternatives, though, suggest that the Legislature’s failure to act would be worse than the painful path the governor outlined Tuesday.