State Capitol Baton Rouge politics

Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana State Capitol.

Next month you are invited to vote on whether we need a new repository for tax revenues.

The question would be more urgent, it is true, if those tax revenues were not entirely imaginary, but your civic responsibility is clear. Another batch of constitutional amendments is on the ballot, so put on your thinking cap.

In truth so many amendments to the state constitution are proposed that there is scarcely time for mature consideration even among the leisured classes. Since the constitution was adopted in 1974, voters have considered 272 amendments, passing 186.

One of three propositions in the upcoming election is to establish a “subfund,” dedicated to road and bridge construction, within the Transportation Trust Fund. Of course, the entire trust fund is supposed to be so dedicated, but legislators have razooed $750 million over the years for the benefit of State Police and also used it to pay salary and benefits for the state Transportation Department. If voters approve the subfund now, the revenues from any future gasoline tax increases must be deposited in it and not diverted for salaries and benefits.

Government will still be free to help itself to as much of the money in the regular fund as it can get away with, however. New revenues may be squirreled away, but the old ones will spend just as good. Besides, the amendment does not prohibit further raids on the fund for the benefit of State Police. It is a total waste of time.

Worse than that, it is a confidence trick, devised after efforts to raise gasoline taxes failed in the Legislature last year. Voters were hostile to the idea, in part because experience persuaded them legislators could not be trusted to use the money as advertised. Future attempts to raise gasoline taxes, it was reasoned, would also fail unless the public were certain that the proceeds would be earmarked for infrastructure. This amendment is supposed to do that; it will reassure anyone who just fell off a turnip truck.

Nobody who drives in Louisiana will doubt the need for a huge investment in construction. The backlog in planned road and bridge work is currently at more than $13 billion, while the state's network could ideally use another $10 billion.

Those numbers are way out of reach, of course; indeed there is little immediate prospect of any new tax revenues, regardless are whether legislators enjoy the public's trust. The increase proposed last year was rejected after the Republican State Central Committee came out against it on grounds that taxes are already too high in Louisiana. Any new tax proposals will be similarly denounced just as sure as every family in Louisiana is “hard-working” and every dollar “hard-earned.” Since a vote to establish the subfund now makes sense only if you hope to vote for a tax increase in the future, a groundswell of support seems unlikely.

Contemplating this and the other two amendments we are getting ready to vote on, Robert Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, initially found them “the most boring ever placed on a Louisiana ballot,” The Advocate reported.

That was a pretty bold claim, considering we have been required to traipse off to the polling station to decide whether the state should be allowed to donate asphalt to local government, for instance, and whether to guarantee ourselves a right to “hunt, fish and trap” that has never been threatened. We said yes both times.

On second thoughts, Scott decided the ballot, or at least one of the proposed amendments on it, was not so boring after all. The amendment, which would shield projects from property taxes until construction is complete and they are up and running, may indeed have a significant impact on the state budget, although voters will probably be able to contain their excitement.

The third proposed amendment is pretty dry stuff too, and would affect only a tiny number, by providing a property tax exemption for the spouses of volunteer firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics who die in the line of duty.

The federal constitution mostly disdains ephemera and has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791. Ours goes on at inordinate length about humdrum issues, and we are evidently determined to add more of the same.