The Legislature kicks off a two-month lawmaking period today with no shortage of big issues to tackle. Reforming Louisiana’s broken tax structure is atop the agenda, but close behind are efforts to revamp the state’s criminal justice system and finding money to address Louisiana’s massive backlog of transportation needs. The AP’s star reporter, Melinda Deslatte, reports that legislators are already in a sour mood and that getting any legislation out of the House will be difficult.
There shouldn’t be a lack of urgency. Louisiana’s governors and lawmakers have had to close 15 midyear budget gaps in nine years. Meanwhile, the sales tax hikes the Legislature used last year to raise more money were only temporary, with a mid-2018 expiration date that will help to create a $1.3 billion budget hole. The legislative session that starts Monday is the last regular session in which lawmakers can change tax laws. If they don’t tackle taxes before June 8, they either have to return for a special session or find a way to cut $1.3 billion in spending from a $9.5 billion state general fund.
The Advocate’s Tyler Bridges looks at the peculiar politics of the House, where Speaker Taylor Barras is seen by many as having far less authority than his predecessors. The real power in the lower chamber lies with Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, of Metairie, and GOP Caucus Chairman Lance Harris of Alexandria – the latter of whom is apparently thinking of running for governor.
In Louisiana, up to 25 anti-tax and anti-spending conservatives in the House consistently vote no on tax and budget measures, rarely proposing their own solutions. The “no” caucus handcuffs Barras’ efforts to cobble together enough votes — particularly on tax measures, which require at least 70 votes. “You have people coming in with hard philosophical views who won’t move off of them,” (Senate President John) Alario, R-Westwego, said in an interview. “It’s not good for democracy. You need give and take. If everyone digs in, nothing happens.”
While the politicians may not yet be on board with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ tax reform recommendations, the inimitable Jim Beam of the Lake Charles American-Press reminds us that the voters understand what’s at stake.
Most of those surveyed (61 percent) said they want additional spending on elementary and secondary education, higher education (61 percent), health care (50 percent) and roads, bridges and highways (68 percent). Pollsters found that very few residents support cutting in those four areas — 12 percent for health care and fewer than 7 percent for the other areas. Edwards is going along with a task force recommendation that state income tax rates be lowered if taxpayers are willing to give up their ability to deduct federal income taxes paid on their state income tax returns. Pollsters found residents agreeable to that swap. About 55 percent said they are paying the right amount of taxes and don’t want that changed. But the same percentage said upper-income earners should pay more. They consider a household earning more than $100,000 annually to be upper income. Some 20 percent of state households fall into that category, and most of them are the taxpayers who itemize on their state income tax returns.
Poverty and indolence
Conventional wisdom in some conservative circles holds that poor people are poor because of their lack of industry and ambition, and that social programs that help low-income families only serve to discourage people from working. Nola.com/The Times-Picayune columnist Bob Mann pricks that balloon in his latest report, which notes that the majority of people who receive public assistance come from working households.
It’s not that poor people are lazy; it’s often that their enormous industry is so rarely rewarded with a living wage. The game is rigged against them in so many ways. State and local governments tax them at rates two and three times that of the wealthy. They often pay more interest for car loans, higher premiums for auto insurance and inflated fees for checking accounts. In Louisiana and elsewhere, unpaid court fees can get them tossed into jail, whereupon they often lose their jobs. In Arkansas, it’s a criminal offense to miss a rent payment. Meanwhile, most government initiatives to help the poor are not handouts to lazy people.
Department of Health funding
Louisiana’s Medicaid budget makes up 86 percent of the funding for Louisiana’s Department of Health, and understandably gets most of the attention when legislators review health care spending. But as LBP’s senior policy analyst Jeanie Donovan details in a new blog, the other 14 percent finances important programs in public health, behavioral health and services for older adults. Many of these programs are in line for more budget cuts in the governor’s executive budget.
Nearly all offices within the health agency were subject to mid-year reductions after the special fiscal session in February 2017, and those cuts were carried forward in the governor’s FY 2018 budget. As a result, with the exception of the Office of Public Health and the Office of the Secretary, all LDH offices are set to receive fewer state general fund dollars in the upcoming fiscal year than in the current year.
Abolish the death penalty?
Louisiana hasn’t put a prisoner to death since 2010, and spends more than $1.5 million each year caring for those who occupy Angola’s Death Row. Studies in multiple states have shown that death penalty cases cost government far more money than the alternative of life without parole (a study of the cost of Louisiana’s death penalty is due by January). But it’s moral issues, not fiscal ones, that have prompted some lawmakers to push for abolishing Louisiana’s death penalty during the upcoming session. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports:
“There is a real chance this can become reality in this session,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, one of three former law enforcement officers promoting two nearly identical bills in the House and Senate. The measures would remove the option of death sentences for murders committed after Aug. 1, meaning those convicted would be punished with life in prison. Claitor says his motivation is more about religious faith. Pope Francis and his predecessors called capital punishment an “offence to the inviolability of life.” But the Baton Rouge Republican also recognizes the fiscal issues of executions that, with the exception of a single volunteer in 2010, haven’t happened in 15 years, and likely won’t be used again in the foreseeable future.
Number of the Day
71 – Percentage of Louisianans who favor a balanced approach to solving Louisiana’s budget shortfalls that includes a mix of budget cuts and tax increases (Source: 2017 Louisiana Survey)