A crowd of mostly Louisiana businessmen and businesswomen audibly “ohh”-ed at a recent demonstration of the “Ohio Checkbook” — a user-friendly website that tracks checks written by government agencies, detailing where the money came from and where the money went.
Easy access to deep detail is why this concept has been embraced by the business community, conservative pressure groups and their allies in the Louisiana Legislature.
LABI chief Stephen Waguespack writes that if a “Louisiana Checkbook” is approved and launched, the taxpayers can see “in real time governmental balances, contracts, salaries, debt, pension obligations and other spending units” on their phone while waiting in the carpool line.
Four bills — filed by Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate — seek to upgrade Louisiana’s current LaTrac system to an easier-to-use, one-stop website populated with a lot more in-the-weeds information. It’ll help, or so goes the arguments, lawmakers and the public they serve find ways to balance spending on government programs with available funds — a serious consideration given the state’s endemic inability to balance its budget.
“The only folks who should be opposing it are those who benefit from government spending your money in the dark of night,” wrote Waguespack, a top aide intimately involved in balancing spending requirements with available revenues when Bobby Jindal was governor.
A spokesman for Ohio’s state treasurer, Josh Mandel, wowed the crowd at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry with a demonstratio…
But opposition won’t come just from bureaucrats. If a largely Democratic group of legislators have their way, objections likely will be raised among many in the business community who right now think a cool new website is just what Louisiana needs.
Current proposals would include and centralize information already available through the state’s public record laws. Excluded will be the names of companies that receive tax breaks and just how much each receives annually in taxpayer largesse.
“We’re talking about $7 billion in exemptions and credits, many of which are not disclosable under the law and those that are (made public) at the initial announcement are not charted afterwards,” said state Rep. Robert Johnson.
The Marksville Democrat is leading an effort to try to amend the bills to extend transparency to tax breaks, at least indicated in ranges like those used on personal financial disclosures. For instance, Johnson reports on his Board of Ethics Personal Financial Disclosure that property he owns in Caldwell Parish is valued between $5,000 and $24,999, while his residence in Avoyelles Parish is worth “more than $100,000.”
Similarly, Johnson wants companies to disclose their tax breaks and their value in various ranges, such as $250,000 to $500,000 or “more than $2 million.”
“If you’re receiving taxpayers’ money, I don’t know why we would want to hide that," Johnson said. “People aren’t interested in how much LSU spends on pencils and who they buy them from. But there’s a lot of interest in who benefits from tax breaks so we can see what we’re getting from those investments.”
On Feb. 28, during the special session, Johnson tried to add the provision to House Speaker Taylor Barras’ bill to establish the “Ohio Checkbook” scheme in Louisiana. He lost on a vote of 50 to 53. All the “no” votes were cast by Republicans.
The Barras bill went on to be passed unanimously by the House, but died in the Senate when the special session collapsed. Now in regular session, Barras and three others will try again. Johnson and his allies will bring back the amendment.
“It takes it too far,” John Kay said of Johnson’s idea. He is the Louisiana director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative lobbying group that has championed adopting the “Ohio Checkbook” but opposes identifying companies that receive tax breaks.
The effort would slow down the bill, which is probably a factor in raising the issue in the first place, he told The Advocate last week. “It’s a slippery slope that will lead to having to disclose the returns of individual taxpayers and taxpayer information that shouldn’t be public record,” Kay said.
If Johnson succeeds in getting his amendment adopted, he said his next step would be to change state law to require businesses that receive the credits to publicly report, if they want to keep the breaks, the amounts of the checks the state has written to them.
The state’s tax breaks are lucrative, and sometimes the businesses don’t need them, Johnson said. State taxpayers rebate those amounts directly from the treasury to the company. And in some instances — the filmmaking tax credit comes to mind — the movie industry can sell those credits to companies that do owe the state money to lower their tax liability.
“Why should those expenditures of taxpayer dollars be hidden?” Johnson asked.