When the Jefferson Chamber gathered for a preview of the current legislative session in March, one of the targets of the day was an oldie but goodie: rampant statutory and constitutional dedications.
In plain English, that translates into corners of the state budget where the Legislature cannot easily cut spending, because there's a law or constitutional provision in place mandating that the money to be used for a specific purpose. In real life, so many budget lines are protected that when lawmakers look for cuts, they're largely limited to a few unprotected areas. This is why higher education and health care advocates always seem to wearing a great big targets on their backs.
There's nothing new about complaints over the situation. They're particularly popular among those, like the business leaders gathered that morning, who bemoan the state's lack of budgeting flexibility and efficiency, and the related pressure to raise more revenue.
Nor is there anything new about the fact that the Legislature hasn't done much to change the widely derided system and appears to have little appetite to do so again this year, amid yet another budget shortfall.
At the Jefferson Chamber meeting, it was state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, who stood up and poured some cold water on the conversation. Everyone knows that dedications are one big reason the state hasn't been able to cut its way out of what's becoming a rolling crisis, he acknowledged. But dig a little deeper, he said, and there's probably some dedication that everyone in that room holds dear— whether it supports a particular business or policy goal or class of citizens — and would fight like hell to preserve.
Talbot's no tax-and-spender; in fact, he was part of the so-called "fiscal hawk" group that formed to fight former Gov. Bobby Jindal's budgetary tricks. But he is a realist, and he was spot-on that day.
Lawmakers wrestling with next year's budget and the looming "fiscal cliff" are once again pointing to some 380 dedicated funds created by statute and 13 funds designated in the constitution, many of which haven't been reassessed in decades. But, as Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte explained in a recent analysis piece, those hoping to tackle the issue and free up millions in revenue that could be reassigned are running into reality.
Most bills attacking dedications have been sidelined due to intense lobbying by those who'd be affected. The most realistic outcome of the debate, she predicted, is that lawmakers will create a review panel to study the issue and report back in the future.
If that strategy sounds like an oldie but goodie too, well, it is.
Lawmakers created a commission last year as well, this one to study the state's outmoded tax structure and make recommendations on how to update it to become fairer and more predictable. The task force did just that, and made exactly the recommendations people examining the issue for years predicted. But despite the political cover that the report was supposed to provide, the Legislature is showing no signs of enacting its major recommendations.
In fact, with just over two weeks of legislating left, lawmakers look like they'll punt on any real attempt to address the state's fiscal woes. They don't even appear ready to address the fiscal cliff that they themselves put in place last year, when they adopted $1.3 billion in temporary taxes that are set to expire in 2018. In doing so, they basically gave themselves a deadline to act, one that they're now poised to miss.
Again, this really shouldn't surprise anyone. It was legislators who created a systems they now decry in the first place, who designated the winners and losers, avoided making hard choices, and crossed their fingers that conditions would improve.
Another study won't change that basic reality. The challenge isn't so much a lack of information. It's a dearth of will.