Opinion: Sam Hanna – It’s All About Priorities

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It’s All About Priorities

Gov. John Bel Edwards was right on the mark when he said the state is facing a budget crisis. His approach, however, to solve the problem is way off the mark.
A self-proclaimed, tried-and-true Democrat, Edwards did what any good liberal governor would do when government runs short of money: He’s proposed a monumental increase in taxes.

In a statewide televised speech just a couple of weeks ago, Edwards outlined the financial problems facing Louisiana and leveled a host of threats about what might occur if state government doesn’t get an infusion of cash. Shutting down LSU football this fall was among the threats. Chalk that up as a missed opportunity for Edwards to make the case for some wholesale changes in how Louisiana is governed.

As we all know, the only way state government can put its hands on some real money in a hurry is through an increase in the state sale’s tax. Ironically, raising the state sales tax by a penny represents the centerpiece of Edwards’ plan to pull state government out of a financial ditch. The extra penny would gin up some $200 million for the remainder of the fiscal year while levied for a full fiscal year, the tax hike would generate more than $900 million for the state.

That’s a start, assuming you are of the mindset that state government needs more money. The penny sales tax hike, though, doesn’t go far enough in light of the state, according to Edwards, facing a $900-million shortfall in the current fiscal year while another $2-billion shortfall lingers on the horizon for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Raiding the state’s

Rainy Day fund, or savings account for tough times, is being bantered about to help shore up the finances. So is grabbing hundreds of millions of dollars from a settlement the state reached with the oil conglomerate BP over the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s not enough money either.

Accordingly, either other taxes must be raised or the Edwards administration, along with the Legislature, must identify deep cuts in state spending in order to balance the budget for the rest of the fiscal year and lay the groundwork for lawmakers to piece together a balanced budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

All of this is unfolding in a special legislative session that’s now in the midst of its second week. Lawmakers spent the first week of the special session either looking at each other or hearing testimony favorable to raising taxes or hearing testimony about how the world would come to an end if the Legislature doesn’t tax us to the point that we can’t breathe. No legislation was advanced in the first week, and it wasn’t until Tuesday of this week that lawmakers finally got around to moving a few bills. Pro-tax bills, by the way.
Lost in the shuffle, or easily dismissed as untouchable, are billions of dollars in state money that’s been statutorily dedicated by the Legislature at some point or another in prior years.

According to a report in The (Baton Rouge) Advocate, lawmakers agree there’s some $2.9 billion in statutory dedications that could be undone, or undedicated, to free cash for other pressing needs such as higher education or health care. Sadly, on Monday during the House Appropriations Committee, one bill right after another dealing with undedicating statutory dedications met a quick death.

That brings us back to Edwards. When the governor took to the airwaves some two weeks ago to strike fear in the minds of those who have a vested interest in seeing Louisiana succeed, he could have very easily put the state citizenry, including the Legislature, on notice that it’s past time for Louisiana to take a long, hard look at what we’re doing with the scarce public dollars that we have at our disposal. And it seems entirely reasonable — at least to me — that if the higher education community was serious about putting the state’s colleges and universities on a more stable financial footing, higher ed officials would step up to the plate and identify the appropriations that should lose their statutory protection in order to better finance the colleges and universities.

Undedicating statutory dedications won’t solve the state’s financial problems. It would buy us some time, maybe 18 months, which is plenty of time for a governor to make the case for Louisiana to get serious and for once, prioritize our spending.
That’s what a governor would do if he’s serious about making a mark and not hell bent on repaying political favors.

Sam Hanna is a state political writer.