Since the special session agenda call issued by Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards pursues an ideological agenda rather than remaking Louisiana’s fiscal structure, it forces legislators to defer true reform.
Edwards authorized the session that begins today to last nearly four weeks and to grapple with short- and long-term budget difficulties. Over the past few months, he advertised it as a way to both close a fiscal deficit this year of $870 million and to reshape the fiscal environment to help tackle a forecasted shortfall of $2 billion next year and predicted massive red ink beyond.
Republicans appeared in agreement with these goals. As legislators may only consider topics the governor specifies in a session call, Republican leaders sent a letter to Edwards asking that he include consideration of changes to Medicaid delivery and state employee pensions and benefits. These are the largest areas of cost escalation over the past several years in total dollars spent.
Instead, almost all of the governor’s call items dealt with specific revenue-raising measures. There were only passing references to a legally questionable use of one-time money, unlocking statutory dedications that often forcibly feed revenues into areas of low priority and vague instructions to cut spending. In other words, Edwards’ long-term restructuring solution consists of raising taxes and letting the good times continue to roll concerning state government spending — without any real attempt to determine the proper scope and function of government.
The call’s tax-and-spend philosophy bears no resemblance to the real roots of Louisiana’s fiscal problems. This state continues to spend above other states per capita (using 2015 data, 18th in the nation) and above its roughly average amount of federal aid per capita (using 2013 data, 22nd in the country). That’s despite having a per capita income not much below average (using 2014 data, 30th nationally) — while its spending since 1990 has increased 325 percent, 16th highest among the states. The state never has had a revenue problem, but a chronic spending problem.
Nor does the tax-first, ask-questions-later Edwards agenda reflect expectations of a critical mass of typical Republican voters whose ballots enabled him to win office and who cast them because he promised to change the state’s fiscal regime. By ignoring the Republicans’ advice in the call, as well as not including other issues such as addressing the overbuilt nature of Louisiana’s higher education system and the relatively high amount of state subsidization of local governments, a session Edwards guaranteed as transformative promises not to be. Instead, it reveals his true agenda of growing government.
Fortunately, the Legislature can compensate.
Since it cannot use the extensive time to consider genuine fiscal overhaul, it should use that extra opportunity to unlock all dedications and to pass appropriations bills paring the existing budget tactically, meticulously matching resources to need. It also could approve revenue enhancements that pay for themselves in the short term — for example, raising the cigarette tax and dedicating proceeds to Medicaid, since taxpayers spend more than $800 million annually to treat diseases associated with smoking. Any other tax increases should last only until the fiscal year’s conclusion to take care of this year’s deficit.
Then legislators can return for the regular session to work on actual fiscal reform for future years. Any other course of action only enables an Edwards’ plan built along the same populist lines that got Louisiana into its fiscal mess in the first place.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at jeffsadow email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.