From the point of view of Louisiana’s colleges and universities, hospitals and health care providers, public schools and governmental agencies, a depressing sameness pervaded the second special session of the Louisiana Legislature. Although there have been major changes to the leadership and membership of the House and Senate, legislation has traveled in well-worn channels leading to familiar outcomes: cuts, cuts and more cuts. Louisianans are used to this drill, having rehearsed its elements under Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. The only surprise this year is that this threadbare act continued despite a new governor and a sympathetic Senate. The House’s intransigent anti-tax stand in this second special session requires the state to accomplish its vital mission with even fewer resources than last year.
Seen from another point of view, however, this session is different from previous sessions in degree if not in kind. What is different about this session is the willingness of legislators to cut popular programs. The best example is TOPS. Ferociously defended by Jindal, TOPS has been cut by 30 percent, becoming just one more item in the budget. The willingness of a majority of legislators to stand up to the governor and, in some cases, defy their own leadership in pursuit of their vision is also new in Louisiana politics. Of course, this independence was foreshadowed by the House’s rejection of the governor’s choice for speaker, Democrat Walt Leger, and the eventual selection of Republican Taylor Barras. For those who have long wondered, as I have in this space, when the Legislature would finally start acting like an independent institution, I guess we have our answer.
Despite some hints that it was forthcoming, this outbreak of legislative independence has caught many by surprise. Even Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has spent most of his brief time in state office picking fights with the Edwards administration and burnishing his credentials for a run for governor in 2019, has complained about cuts to his office. Landry’s complaints have been echoed everywhere the budget ax has landed. But this time, Senate President John Alario has been unable to pull a rabbit out of his hat and will probably once again rely on a handkerchief, if he has any tears left for TOPS, healthcare partnerships, higher education and everything else cut in this budget.
Of course, those resisting the call to raise more taxes for state institutions will attest to acting on principles, much as the head of the Republican Delegation, Rep. Lance Harris, did recently when he avowed that he would not consider tax increases outside a fundamental economic reorganization of the state’s finances. Considering all temporary taxes and expedients as unworthy of consideration, those in Harris’s camp preferred to let the state’s affairs suffer, thus increasing pressure for fundamental financial reevaluation and reform. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry crowed “we haven’t given government all that it wants,” conflating the government he is a part of with some imagined fictional entity to which he ascribes emotions. Henry’s and Harris’ “stand on principles” is a fraud for two reasons: Our budget was shaped by Jindal, and there is a good bit of money available — if the Legislature were serious about reforming our state’s financial situation.
Legislators seem to have forgotten that Jindal held sway in Louisiana for eight years. If cuts could be made to fundamental Louisiana institutions and services, he made them. Using higher education as an example, support from the state general fund shrunk from a high of $1.5 billion in 2008 to less than $700 million today. Institutions of higher education, desperate to survive, have shifted the burden to students and families. It is possible to replicate this story in nearly every area of state government except one: that related to tax exemptions and exclusions. Here the state continues to spend like a drunken sailor, throwing money at privileged businesses and individuals while cutting safety-net programs and services.
The Exemption Budget (find it at revenue.louisiana.gov under news and publications), a 403-page document published every year by the Department of Revenue, details the extraordinary variety of ways in which businesses and individuals are exempted from paying taxes to the state of Louisiana. The total amount of exemptions listed in the 2014-15 document is $8.2 billion, larger than the total amount of tax revenue collected. The three largest categories of exemptions are sales tax exemptions ($2.9 billion), those extended to individuals ($2.4 billion), and those extended to corporations ($2.2 billion).
Despite their claims to the contrary, state legislators have muffed chance after chance to address the most egregious examples of waste, preferring to balance the budget by squeezing revenue out of higher education, health care, K-12 education, criminal justice and other state agencies.
To claim “principled” resistance to raising taxes while refusing to address the lavish and unwarranted largess given to individuals and corporations is a betrayal of the public trust, which no posturing on principle can disguise. The Legislature has forgotten its priorities and failed in its most fundamental obligation: to protect the well-being of the state and its citizens. Its members should be recalled, or at least, recalled to duty.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected]