Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to call the Legislature into a special session some time in the middle of February.
Lawmakers, it seems, will be asked to entertain revenue-raising bills that, according to published reports, would gin up some $2.5 billion in new monies for the state. The Edwards administration says the revenues are a must in a light of a $750-million deficit in the current fiscal year and a projected $1.9-billion deficit for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, though Edwards’ own transition team said the deficits were much smaller.
At a recent news conference, Edwards, a Democrat, outlined a host of ideas to raise taxes, including a new one-cent sales tax on everything except food, prescription drugs and residential utilities, a change in the state income code, eliminating or reducing tax credits and rebates for the business community and a litany of other proposals that, like all other revenue-raising measures, must be approved by a Republican-controlled Legislature. That would include the House of Representatives where a coalition of freshmen lawmakers and those who call themselves fiscal hawks will play a major role in shaping policy over the next four years. Remember, they’re the ones who spearheaded Rep. Taylor Barras’ election as Speaker of the House over the governor’s pick, Rep. Walt Leger.
Over the weekend, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate began publishing a series of articles highlighting the decline in direct state revenue for Louisiana’s colleges and universities. According to The Advocate, direct state funding for higher education peaked at about $884 million in 2008. In 2015, it was about $405 million.
Those figures do not include the TOPS money colleges and universities collect from the state, which tallied about $277 million in 2015. That higher education weathered its fair share and more in cuts in state funding during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration is not new news. Jindal made it clear on day one he intended to cut state spending in lieu of raising taxes, though his last year in office was marked by a hodge-podge of maneuvering in the Legislature that resulted in some $800 million to $1 billion in new revenue. The Edwards administration would have you believe that money doesn’t exist or has already been spoken for.
Though it’s thorough and even-handed, The Advocate’s reporting on the state of higher education in Louisiana mirrored the constant drumbeat we’ve been hearing from many corners for weeks. That is the state is broke and it’s Jindal’s fault and the Legislature must raise taxes or the world will come to an end forthwith. That’s the message. You are expected to believe every word of it and question nothing.
There’s no doubt the state’s finances are on shaky ground. Why would they not be? After all, one of the largest industries in Louisiana, oil and gas, is in a tailspin in light of the decline in the price of a barrel of oil. Oil companies are going broke or hanging on for dear life while severance taxes paid to the state have taken a dive. Oil field workers are losing their jobs right and left. No job means no money to spend on goods and services. No money spent on good and services means no sales tax collections for state and local governments. And it goes on from there.
In the midst of all of this bad news on the economy in Louisiana, we’re staring at the largest tax increase in the state’s history. Higher education is being used as the poster boy to justify it. And that raises a good question.
If lawmakers raise a plethora of new taxes in the coming special session and higher education comes into hundreds of millions of dollars in additional state funding, will the state’s colleges and universities give up those massive hikes in tuition and fees they’ve levied on the backs of students (and their parents) over the past five-plus years? I suspect the answer is “no.” Lawmakers should take note.
Sam Hanna is a state political writer.