When Louisiana officials closed the books on the last fiscal year that ended June 30, the state was in the rare position of having a little cash in its pocket.
That’s a big change from the decade of reeling through various budget crises under former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s two terms.
Obviously, a good bit of that positive outcome is because post-Jindal the Legislature and new Gov. John Bel Edwards patched up the budget with a one-cent sales tax increase. That’s a huge amount of money coming in, but at least it’s from a regular source instead of the constant tapping of one-time money and savings accounts that Jindal used to balance, precariously, his budgets.
The bad news is that Louisiana is now No. 1 among the states in sales taxes, not where we want to be. The good news is that with cuts ordered by Edwards, in addition to the new revenues, the budget is now stable.
The surplus from the 2016-17 budget is above $100 million and, under the Louisiana Constitution, can only be used for one-time purposes: building projects, paying off retirement debt and so on. Those are responsible uses for one-time money.
More bad news: This by no means suggests that the state is on a good — or even decent — financial footing.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told legislators the surplus won't help with the $1 billion gap looming in mid-2018, when temporary sales taxes passed by lawmakers last year expire.
That’s the “fiscal cliff” that legislators have repeatedly failed to address.
The surplus “does not affect in any way the reality of the cliff that we'll face for next year, but it does signal that we're heading in the right direction,” Dardenne said. “It's very good news. But we have to temper the good news with the reality for the cliff.”
Dardenne is right, and the prospects for the future, even with the economy recovering from the recent collapse in the price of oil, are not rosy in the long term. Louisiana struggles with an outdated tax structure that desperately needs a major overhaul. Sales taxes are too high. That’s bad for families and businesses — for it is a “sales and use” tax, more than just at the checkout counter. And stability has been hard-won, but it does not pay for quality state services, such as the universities and colleges repeatedly cut during the Jindal years.
We don’t want lawmakers to use a surplus, small in the overall scheme of things, as an excuse to avoid hard decisions on the state’s tax structure.
We’ve put off the hard calls for too long.
In all the reviews of the 2017 Legislature, the consensus is that the lawmakers failed to do…