Opinion – Sam Hanna, Jr.: A penny-ante state

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A penny-ante state

The start of a regular legislative session usually is met with much fanfare. At least it is in eyes and minds of those of us who actually pay attention to how the governor and the state Legislature pass their time.

But since state lawmakers just wrapped up a special session last week in such poor fashion, it’s difficult to get motivated or enthusiastic over the prospect of lawmakers hanging out in Baton Rouge until early June. Even later if Gov. John Bel Edwards calls the Legislature into another special session — after the regular session ends — to entertain more revenue measures to stem the red ink that’s sure to surface when lawmakers approve a so-called “stand still” budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

After being told state government faced a roughly $900-million deficit in the current fiscal year and a more than $2-billion deficit heading into the fiscal year that begins July 1, lawmakers haphazardly approved a new sales tax and did away with the exemptions on existing sales taxes in the special session. Their handiwork, however, fell far short of generating enough money to balance the budgets going forward.

Perhaps lawmakers didn’t believe the governor’s take on the budgets. Perhaps the deficits aren’t as large as we’ve been told. Perhaps they’re worse.
One thing is for sure. None of us commoners — and most lawmakers — will ever know whole story because getting a straight answer out of anyone who supposedly knows the ins and outs of the state budget is akin to finding a needle in a haystack.
That, my friends, is not an understatement.

All told, the taxes lawmakers raised in the special session totaled some $1 billion. According to the governor, the tax increases, along with some cuts in spending and other maneuvers, still left a $30-million to $50-million hole in the current fiscal year budget while another $800-million budget deficit looms on the horizon in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Since this year’s regular session, which is taking place in an even-numbered year, cannot delve into tax-raising matters thanks to the state Constitution, lawmakers, for all practical purposes, have two options in front of them: Approve a budget that entails some $800 million in cuts; Or prepare another budget void of the cuts and hope to gin up the necessary revenues in a special session following the regular session.

Remember, all of this budget cutting or tax raising or whatever must occur before July 1, which marks the start of the new fiscal year. Accordingly, if the Legislature dickers around for the entire 85-day allotment for the regular session, which it will, lawmakers would have about three weeks in a special session to come to some kind of an agreement on new revenues in order to shore up the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Since Edwards used his speech to open the regular session on Monday to communicate another round of threats about which facets of state government stand to undergo another round of budget cuts, we will witness another full-court press by higher education and health care officials to convince lawmakers that raising new revenues is the only option they could possibly pursue. In case anyone missed it, the governor’s threats and the heavy-handed lobbying didn’t work the first time; they won’t work a second time around either.

On the surface, the financial picture in Baton Rouge isn’t pretty. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

It’s never going to change, or improve, until the governor and the Legislature get serious about taking a hard look at the manner in which we tax people and businesses in Louisiana and how we hamstring the state budget to the tune of billions of dollars in statutory and constitutional dedications.

Until that that day arrives, Louisiana will remain a penny-ante state.

Sam Hanna is a state political writer.