Foil Ivey James at Chamber of Commerce of Baton Rouge

State Reps. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, Barry Ivey, R-Central, and Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, answer questions at Chamber of Commerce of Baton Rouge luncheon.

The recipe has always been the same. Take a couple of legislators, a few do-gooders and form a blue-ribbon panel on some thorny issue we’d rather avoid. Stir in several meetings, gather a few facts for proof, then issue a vanilla-laden report. Set on shelf.

Strong language from the latest task force to look at Louisiana’s fiscal structure indicates those panelists strayed far from the usual recipe.

“A failure to act is not an option,” the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy wrote in a strongly worded report released Thursday that recommends wholesale changes in the way state government gathers and spends taxpayer dollars.

While supporting continued efforts to spend more efficiently, the panel found that after years of spending cuts, the dollars needed by state government can only come from rolling back special interest tax breaks that little by little have bogged down the system.

It’s supposed to be the basis of legislation to be filed for debate beginning in April.

But Gov. John Bel Edwards and his team have made little effort to build consensus. And Republican legislative leaders want to cut spending before attacking the politically dicey restructuring of the state’s fiscal framework.

“Both sides have dug in,” said state Rep. Julie Stokes, a Kenner Republican.

The administration and Republican majority remain an ocean apart, and it could be 2018 or 2019 before lawmakers tackle serious financial changes. A delay jeopardizes higher education, public K-12 schools, job creation programs, and health care for a quarter of the state’s population, she said.

Even as he pressed the need for structural changes, and reiterated his support for some of the task force’s ideas, Central Republican Rep. Barry Ivey dismissed the report to a gathering of the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge Parish last week. “We’ve been here before.”

Indeed, legislators last spring rejected one of the task force’s key recommendations: eliminating the provision that allows taxpayers to deduct their federal income tax payments on state tax returns. Louisiana is one of only a few states that allow such a deduction; removing it would annually add about $900 million to the state Treasury.

As Baton Rouge small-business men’s sharpened knives sliced stuffed pork chops, their pointed questioning exposed a deep suspicion of government.

Skewered was state Rep. Franklin Foil, the Baton Rouge Republican who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and represents the predominantly conservative neighborhoods southeast of LSU.

At one point conversation focused on the possibility of raising the gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge improvements.

Chamber president Cecil Cavanaugh, one of the founding members of the Tea Party of Louisiana, noted that only 11 percent of the money from the existing Transportation Trust Fund, where most of the gasoline taxes flow, goes for infrastructure improvements. That means 89 percent of the fund has been funneled to pay for other expenses.

“Why do you expect me to vote for a gasoline tax when we’re not spending what we have?” Cavanaugh told Foil. “Not only would I not vote for it, I don’t want you to vote for it.”

Rep. Ted James pointed out that an effort to amend the state constitution to stop diverting transportation funds was defeated by voters. A number of the structural changes being considered also will have to be approved by voters.

“Because it had the word ‘tax’ on it, I know that’s why it failed,” he told Chamber members. “When we make these structural tax changes, we need them. When we put the word ‘tax’ on the ballot, don’t just assume that it’s bad.”

James, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods in north Baton Rouge, said he has the luxury of speaking his mind because his constituents don’t retaliate for votes to raise taxes or eliminate tax breaks.

“I know the concerns these guys have because when they vote on these things, they get beat up,” James said, nodding to Foil and Ivey. “The pressure they have comes from voters.”

Back in November 2008, as Bobby Jindal ended his first year as governor, he spoke of constraints imposed on government by distrustful voters.

“Taxpayers are right to be skeptical, at times, of what happens in Baton Rouge, but I do think there is a way to amend the constitution to give that needed flexibility while keeping those checks and balances,” Jindal said then. “It’s not right that we always have to look at health care and higher education as the first places to cut to balance the budget.”

The same test presents itself to Edwards as he begins his second year in office.

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