Opinion: Sam Hanna, Jr. – Least bit helps

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Least bit helps

Sen. J.P. Morrell of New Orleans wants Louisiana voters to amend the state Constitution to allow the Legislature to entertain revenue-raising measures every year.
As it stands now, the Constitution says lawmakers can only consider new taxes, or revenue-raising measures, in a legislative session held in odd-numbered years.
That’s problematic for a couple of reasons.

Governors and lawmakers are elected in odd-numbered years. Their first regular legislative session, of course, falls in an even-numbered year since they don’t take office until January following the fall elections. Accordingly, the Legislature is prohibited from dealing with any tax bills in that first regular session.

There exists an alternative, though. The governor, as well as a majority of the Legislature, can call lawmakers into a special session at any time, including even-numbered years, to consider new taxes. Special sessions, however, are expensive to conduct. Better stated, they represent an added expense for the taxpayers to shoulder when it could be avoided if the Legislature were allowed to consider new taxes in a regular session in an even-numbered year.

We should look no further than the special legislative session the Legislature held prior to the ongoing regular session as example of a new governor being forced to call a special session to deal with budgetary concerns since — you guessed it — this is an even-numbered year and raising taxes in a regular session in an even-numbered year is a no-no.

As you may recall, Gov. John Bel Edwards summoned lawmakers to Baton Rouge in February to raise taxes to close a hole in the current fiscal year budget as well as take steps to offset a projected deficit for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Under Morrell’s proposal, the special session in February could have been avoided if lawmakers were allowed to raise taxes in a regular session in an even-numbered year.

Let’s not forget Edwards has stated he intends to call lawmakers into another special sometime this year to raise taxes again. The second special session is expected to focus on raising state income taxes.

In other words, the $800 million in new taxes the Legislature raised last year and the $1.2 billion in new taxes lawmakers raised in the special session in February don’t represent enough money for state government to make ends meet.

Don’t interpret this offering as an endorsement of raising taxes. Far from it. We pay too much in local, state and federal taxes as it is.

But from this point of view it’s entirely unreasonable to tie the Legislature’s and the governor’s hands in dealing with budget deficits and the like simply because it’s an even-numbered year. After all, lawmakers and the governor must face the electorate — angry or not — whenever they take it upon themselves to raise taxes. That’s especially relevant when a governor and a Legislature show very little willingness to embrace any concerted effort to prioritize state spending to pay for what’s truly important such as health care and education while eliminating appropriations that have no business being included in the state budget in the first place.

That’s a simplistic explanation for how this governor and this Legislature could possibly avoid raising taxes for a third time in a year, but I suspect very few people are paying attention. I can assure you the governor and the Legislature aren’t.

Everyone, however, will pay attention once all of these new taxes start ripping cash out of people’s pockets and people have less money to spend at home and businesses see sales decline and employers start laying people off. All of it will occur simply because state government wants more money.

Yet, as tight as money is, Morrell’s amendment represents a small step toward saving the state — and the taxpayers — at least a little money. The least bit helps, right?
And we’ve got to start somewhere.

Sam Hanna is a state political writer.