Despite a slew of numbers thrown around in the state's budget debates, what we have here is a failure to communicate.
Sooner or later, the debating partners are going to have to become legislating partners to get Louisiana out of a long cycle of annual and semi-annual budget scrapes.
In brief, the dispute is about the level of state spending, which from the position of GOP critics of Gov. John Bel Edwards dates back years before he arrived on the scene.
By the accounting of state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, state spending has increased at nearly twice the national inflation rate over the past 14 years. Yet that accounts for the huge wave of federal money running through state accounts after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and it is not as reliable a guide for decisions as the amount that Louisianans tax themselves for state servcies.
LSU Professor Jim Richardson and Steve Winham, who spent a dozen years as the state’s budget director under Republican and Democratic governors, calcuate that the increase in state spending over the past 14 years has actually trailed the expansion of the state’s economy over that period of time. Those figures could suggest that the state ought to be spending more.
“Our government has been growing at two to one over the private sector,” Harris told Edwards and other legislators when the governor outlined his budget plan to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. “We should have affected the overgrowth of government years ago.”
As Edwards replied in his speech opening the special session of the Legislature, saying that you favor smaller government is easy, but he challenged the opposition: "If collectively, you prefer more midyear cuts than I have proposed, then propose those specific cuts and vote for them."
Louisiana's spending problem is not overall, because national studies suggest the state and local tax burden on citizens is low compared to other states. There is probably broad agreement that the tax code is poor, that too much money is paid by backdoor tax breaks to special interests influential with legislators, that the state spends a lot on services that in other states would be funded with local property taxes.
Those range from state checks to local police officers, revenues shared with local school systems, even community colleges funded by the state instead of local revenues, as in Texas and other states.
But that grew out of our state's history going back a lot further than Katrina: Oil and gas revenues available to the state were tapped to pay for services that would in many, if not most, states be funded by dedicated taxes, often raised directly by local governments.
For local officials, it's the politically easy path to take services and checks from the state rather than raise the money yourself. By exporting oil and gas, the state's tax burden was shifted off to consumers around the country.
Louisiana is, partly because of the influx of hurricane recovery revenues cited by Harris, and partly because of former Gov. Bobby Jindal's raiding of one-time money for the budget, like an addict trying to avoid the hard stuff, but finding the political temptation too great.
By that standard, Harris and the governor are identifying different sides of the same problem, but the governor — to his credit — wants to raise the taxes to pay the bills. Is Harris willing to do the same? That's politically risky, which is why there is a continuing impasse over the budget.