This much we know about what will happen once legislators take office come January: They should pack their bags for Baton Rouge.
Each of the four major candidates for governor promises to call all those new and returning lawmakers into a special session to tackle Louisiana’s structural budget crisis. And one main focus of the debate is bound to be the lucrative and largely uncapped tax giveaways to favored industries, programs that cost the taxpayers more than $1 billion annually and often bring a questionable return on investment.
Beyond that, the specifics are anybody’s guess, even as Election Day rapidly approaches, and gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne bluntly explained the main reason why during last week’s debate at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston.
“This is not going to be easy because everybody’s got a constituency,” Dardenne predicted.
He can say that again.
That so much money for so many people will be on the line has already chilled the conversation. No candidate wants to anger potential constituents or donors before they pull the lever or write a check, so voters rarely get an unvarnished look at what’s to come during even the most substantive campaigns.
But if the politicians are nervous now, imagine what will happen once hordes of lobbyists descend on the Capitol and start pushing their clients’ cases.
In fact, the special interests are pushing already, via campaign donations to the candidates and unlimited contributions to their affiliated Super PACs.
So when you hear someone suggest that a tax credit aimed at promoting horizontal drilling — or fracking — is on the table for elimination, consider the huge sums industry executives are spending to promote the candidacies of U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. If we’re going to go ahead and accept the proposition that money is speech, then nobody has a louder voice than the people, including residents of other states, who are dropping six- and seven-figure contributions on the Louisiana governor race.
Another possible target is the state’s generous film tax credits program, which, just to name an example, puts the state on the hook for some $330,000 for every episode of “Duck Dynasty.” Despite studies showing that Louisiana doesn’t get much back for its investment in the industry — and despite a recent article in “Variety” suggesting some tweaks to the program last year haven’t driven productions to competing states en masse, as predicted — Dardenne and state Rep. John Bel Edwards remain fans.
The upshot is that voters have only heard bits and pieces, hems and haws, over how the men hoping to become governor would tackle the massive problem.
And even the specifics some candidates cite can be misleading. Vitter, who made a rare appearance at the Louisiana Tech debate, took what sounded like a strong stand against Louisiana’s lucrative solar tax credits — which, he argued, are overly rich and benefit recipients who are well-off enough to afford the upfront cost of installing roof panels.
But his talk doesn’t sound nearly so tough when you consider the close ties between many Louisianans and the fossil fuel industry, a direct competitor with newfangled green power providers. Not to mention the fact that the solar tax credit is also set to expire at the end of 2017.
Equally unconvincing, upon further examination, is Angelle’s proposal for a neutral, objective panel to examine the costs and benefits of each exemption and determine which should stay, which should change and which should go.
Gathering the data is a great idea and long overdue, of course. Even when the Legislature tried to get an accounting, in the form of a bill by Senate Finance Chair Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed it.
But as Dardenne pointed out, it’s naïve to think that anyone can take the politics out of the process.
The new governor and Legislature will have all sorts of competing claims to sort out, and the pressure from potential losers will be intense. And if you think you’re seeing some serious politicking over the tax code now, well, just wait ‘til next year.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.