If the New Orleans Airport is a commercial engine for the 2 million-plus people and 14 parishes within its 60-mile radius, then the city of New Orleans — with its airport, its seaport, its people, and its unique, irreplaceable culture — is the economic linchpin for the state of Louisiana. I don’t think any legislator in Louisiana would hesitate to provide emergency funds to the Louis Armstrong Airport or the Port of South Louisiana for critical infrastructure repairs if either of these entities faced an abrupt and dire crisis.
From its largest industry (tourism), New Orleans has the wherewithal to take care of its sewage, drainage, and water infrastructure, but decades-old tax dedications, misaligned reserve funds, and a lack of local autonomy over hospitality taxes have constrained the city and its people for years. Some legislators representing areas outside Orleans Parish are suggesting that sales taxes could be raised to pay for the city’s vital infrastructure needs instead of modernizing and rationalizing current funding streams in New Orleans.
If the runways at Louisiana’s largest airport or the docks at the mouth of the Mississippi River were teetering on the brink of collapse, no political leader in Louisiana would suggest that pilots or riverboat captains — who are generally well-compensated — should just pay higher taxes to fix the problem. Despite low average incomes for local households, New Orleans already has one of the highest combined local and state sales tax rates in the nation, and special taxing districts already raise this regressive rate even higher in some parts of the city.
Asking New Orleans voters to bear higher sales taxes is playing with fire. If the vote on higher sales taxes to address deferred maintenance at the Sewerage & Water Board fails, New Orleans’ vulnerability to flooding will linger and worsen. The debacle will likely create a poisonous and skeptical public attitude toward long-needed reforms like getting nonprofits to pay drainage fees and addressing the costs of New Orleans’ vast fiscal challenges through economies of scale.
The bill for kicking the can on New Orleans infrastructure and tax priorities is rapidly coming due. Hurricane season is right around the corner. Louisiana had a net population outflow (loss) of 10,840 people in 2018, and the New Orleans metropolitan area, as well as Orleans Parish itself, also saw population losses in the same period. How long will New Orleans tourists, visiting sports fans, prospective families, and local residents tolerate boil-water advisories, potholes, and flooded streets? The best shot for Louisiana to revive its population growth is to strengthen its economic engine in Orleans Parish with smart tax policies and sustainable funding streams for local infrastructure.