With the clock ticking, and more than $1 billion in temporary sales and other taxes expiring on June 30, perhaps you would think that the lawmakers at the State Capitol would be getting a move on.
Not exactly. And the dilatoriness cannot be blamed on Gov. John Bel Edwards, even though he departed from the script in the 2017 Legislature with a business-activity tax that went nowhere in the process.
Few politicians are eager to embrace revenue measures, even if — as Edwards seeks — they turn out to be “revenue neutral” for the state government. But we commend Edwards for his willingness to embrace a slate of tax reform measures recommended more than a year ago by experts commissioned by the Legislature to come up with a plan.
"The Legislature has yet to address the long-term structural tax reform that we need to implement," Edwards recently told a luncheon of civic leaders in Baton Rouge. "If we don't fix the cliff, no one is going to want to put their name on the cuts that are necessary."
The “fiscal cliff” is real. Budget cuts might be part of the solution, but at best we’ve heard only vague assertions that realistic cuts can be made, coming from the House GOP leadership, often at odds with both Edwards and the GOP-majority Senate.
Edwards’ plan is more coherent and represents real money, not pie-in-the-sky notions of stripping a billion dollars out of a general fund of less than $10 billion.
What should be a non-starter for both sides is continuing the 1-cent “emergency” sales tax of 2016. Rather, it can and should be replaced by the suite of income tax changes that mirror the Stelly Plan, the tax-reform measures of 2002 that were gradually undermined in recent years. "We have to get it done this time," Edwards, a Democrat, said.
That got less than a stirring reception from the House GOP leaders.
"I think it's too early to say if anything is ironclad," said state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, who chairs the GOP caucus. His members are still talking cuts among themselves but they’ve had two years of control of the Appropriations Committee, and we’ve seen small-bore initiatives that don’t even approach the kind of sums needed to deal with the fiscal cliff.
In legislative-speak, if “all options are on the table,” not much of anything is really a priority.
Even Edwards is likely to accept a continuation of part of the 1-cent sales tax, if necessary to bridge the time needed to levy other taxes to replace it. And business interests might well want to see some of the increases they’ve borne in the past two years reassessed.
That can be done, if the House GOP will accept the blue-ribbon panel’s diagnosis and stand down their resolute indecisiveness about the fiscal reality of the state. After all, many of the GOP members were supporters of the budgets of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who dug this deep hole.
A deep budget hole, a fiscal cliff, whatever image comes to mind, we hope it inspires a sense of urgency to fix the problem and not just endlessly wrestle with it.