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The Mardi Gras Lesson

February 9, 2016

By: Stephen Waguespack

In Louisiana, we sure do know how to stretch out a good time.

While the rest of the country typically gets back to work shortly after the New Year, we Louisianans have a knack for drawing that holiday spirit out a little bit longer than most.

This week is Mardi Gras, our own beloved, unique and world-renowned tradition that the people of Louisiana have celebrated for over 250 years (though it wasn’t until 1875 that Gov. Henry Warmoth signed legislation to make Fat Tuesday a state legal holiday).

As we all know,  Mardi Gras serves as the last time for many to have a good time and overindulge in certain cuisines and behavior before the Lenten fasting and solemn mindset takes hold. While some of us hold out longer than others, this typically is the point when even the most “joie de vivre” filled citizen can finally move on from the holiday season.

It’s a good thing, because some serious work is awaiting all of us next week in the state Capitol.

Gov. Edwards issued a long-promised proclamation last Friday, calling the Legislature into special session on Valentine’s Day in order to debate a number of revenue raising measures he has proposed to address the current state budget deficit.

In advance of this proclamation, the heads of the Senate and House Republican delegation sent a letter to the governor last week asking that specific government reductions, entitlement reforms and budget structural changes be included in the proclamation. 

While that legislative request was not granted, expect the budget debate over the next several weeks to fall along this growing distinction:  those who view tax increases as the only realistic or viable alternative to solve this budget deficit and those who believe any productive solution must include robust governmental structural reforms and spending reductions. 

All the while, nervous participants in a worsening private sector economy anxiously watch this debate to find out what the final resolution will mean for them.

The chasm between these two mindsets is vast but not insurmountable. A solution that can finally solve this problem is there for the taking; as long as policymakers and involved citizens are finally ready to confront the reality we have long avoided in Louisiana.

For generations, we have looked the other way as our populist past has continued to dominate our increasingly out of touch present. Rather than fully embrace a much needed evolution into a more competitive and modern governmental structure, we have largely either avoided transformation or given it periodic lip service throughout the years.

Louisiana state and local government, respectively, each spend more per capita than any other state in the South. We generally fund with state dollars a higher percentage of local education, health care and law enforcement than other states with which we compete. In short, state government in Louisiana has chosen to largely fund many expenses commonly viewed as local in nature by other states.

We lock away billions of dollars in existing tax revenues in a myriad of dedications and lock boxes that neuter their ability to contribute to health care and higher education. We have too many boards and commissions, adding unnecessary overhead and administrative costs to taxpayers.

Cost drivers like Medicaid utilization, underfunded governmental pension programs and high incarceration rates are adding tremendous costs to our system, though our health outcomes, governmental efficiency and crime statistics continue to be a problem.

Our corporate tax rates are high, though we have depended on a maze of exemptions and credits to mitigate their harmful impact. Our sales tax collection process is cumbersome and riddled with overlapping audits and assessments, while the rates themselves are higher than most others.

All the while, our outcomes remain tragically low compared to others in categories too numerous to count. Our historical populist approach to government is expensive, outdated and ineffective at solving our never-ending battle with poverty, inconsistent economic growth, an unhealthy population, low educational outcomes and high crime rates. Taxes alone have never made our governmental structure competitive, cost effective or impactful at solving our habitual problems.

For decades, we have had our populist fun. It was a blast and we all passed a good time. But that party may finally be coming to an end and the hangover is starting to hurt. 

This year let’s take the Mardi Gras lesson to heart and apply it to our government. A Lenten-inspired diet is just as good for the government’s waistline as it is for our own.

This legislative special session gives us the chance to do the right thing this time around. The end of Mardi Gras is a reminder for us to not only start living the right way, but to finally start governing that way also. While we all know that holistically reforming our government will be a tough challenge that will require a little soul searching, fasting, and repenting; an economic and societal promised land awaits us all if we do it right.