Outside his own staff, does Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposal to fill at least some of the state’s deep budget hole by eliminating state rebates of the industrial taxes paid to local parishes have any support at all?
Seriously. Anybody out there ready to jump on the bandwagon? Any lawmakers eager to take that vote?
Didn’t think so.
Rarely has an allegedly serious solution to a demonstrably serious problem landed with such a thud. Jindal’s idea, delivered under intense pressure to finally do something about the state’s flailing finances, is proving to be the opposite of a real stab at an answer.
It’s actually nothing more than a gimmick, a way to claim to find revenue without raising taxes, even though the effective result is a tax increase. Under the proposal, Jindal can keep the anti-tax purity label he so desperately craves because he’s not technically proposing to raise state taxes. Instead, he’s pitching a plan for the state to stop rebating taxes companies pay to localities.
From the point of view of the corporate taxpayers themselves, that’s nothing but a tax hike, as business groups, editorialists and legislators all have noted. Sure, Jindal says he backs eliminating the inventory tax entirely, but that would take a constitutional amendment and force parishes to plug their own big budget holes. In other words, it’s not something that’s likely to happen anytime soon or without a whole separate fight.
Budgetary gimmicks are nothing new for this administration, of course, but this year was supposed to be at least somewhat different. Facing a $1.6 billion deficit, nearly universal criticism for letting his likely presidential aspirations dictate his actions as governor and dreadful poll numbers at home, Jindal seemed like he might finally buckle down and do some of the hard work of righting the ship.
Nope. Now that everyone’s had a chance to digest the idea, one of the major planks in his proposed budget, it’s clear it’s a nonstarter.
The real question is whether it was ever intended to be anything but that.
By making the suggestion, as his administration called the inventory tax proposal and other ideas contained in the executive budget, Jindal went on record as having proposed something. But the proposal itself is less a governing strategy than a response to accusations that he won’t deal with the runaway cost of tax exemptions. It’s all about deniability.
See, I tried, he seems to be saying. If you don’t like it, you come up with something better.
The “you” in that formulation, of course, is the Legislature, and that’s where things get interesting.
More than anything, Jindal’s proposal is essentially a challenge to lawmakers who routinely bend to the governor’s will, who even now are trying to figure out their realistic options by ascertaining what Jindal would or would not veto.
Many are starting to push back. State Sen. Jack Donahue, who chairs the Finance Committee, has been attempting to get a handle on the cost of exemptions for years now. Jindal hasn’t been much help.
Donahue passed a bill last year seeking an accounting, only to watch it fall to a gubernatorial veto. Jindal explained his opposition by claiming that such a report could somehow discourage business relocation and expansion. Jindal also noted that Americans for Tax Reform, the Washington group whose no-tax pledge appears to be Jindal’s north star, asked for the veto.
State Rep. Tim Burns jumped into the debate by praising ATR’s intent but lashing out at its rigid rules.
“The group should recognize that there are also unwise and unfair corporate windfalls disguised as tax incentives and that reforming these is not necessarily raising taxes and deserving of the Scarlet T,” he wrote in a blog post. Both Donahue and Burns, like Jindal, are Republicans and professed tax opponents.
That category covers lots of legislators, in fact. And many of them have complained that Jindal’s presidential hopes have been an obstacle to dealing with state problems for a while now. But the truth is that his behavior also has given them cover and protected them from taking some very hard votes themselves.
If we can all agree that Jindal’s first move wasn’t a serious one, then the next question is this: Will the Legislature’s be any better?