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The Numbers Game

April 21, 2015

By: Stephen Waguespack

If the old saying is true that the numbers don’t lie, then the story of this year’s legislative session is quantifiably easy to tell. The 144 members of the Louisiana Legislature face a $1.6 billion governmental operating deficit this session. The governor enters his eighth and final year, which means Louisiana will have a new leader in 2016.

Legislators have until 6 p.m. on June 11 to finalize action on all bills, including the budget. In preparation of this year’s session, legislators introduced over 1,070 bills covering a host of topics ranging from the budget to education to health care to the size of crawfish. Using a simple word search of all introduced bills, it is quite easy to see where their focus is going in to this annual spring ritual of politics and policy.

There are 433 pieces of legislation dealing with the word “tax” and 143 for “taxpayer.” Unfortunately, the word “reduction” was only found in 69 bills as compared to the word “increase” which is used in 201 bills. Rather than cutting spending, these numbers leave little doubt with where officials are hoping to go to solve our state budget challenge.

State government is estimated to collect over $10.5 billion in taxes, licenses and fees, and fees projected for FY16 but only $8.5 billion is available to spend. (Meanwhile, expenditures anticipated for FY16 are $10.1 billion, leaving a $1.59 billion deficit.) While this appears to be a seemingly simple mathematical answer to our problems, the answer is quite fuzzy since a large portion of those dollars are not easily usable in times like this due to a budget locked up in restricted uses and dedicated funds.

Perhaps related to this self-inflicted obstacle, 55 bills are introduced dealing with “dedications” and 244 are pertaining to “funds.”

The word “jobs” is found in only 54 bills and “economy” is listed in only 22, despite the fact that our private sector growth has been an impressive statistic compared to our regional peers and should be a source of pride for those running for election this fall. However, there is no discussion around the Capitol of the private sector growth we have.

The unquenchable thirst for more of your dollars for government is simply drowning out any talk of the private sector. Even the governor’s speech to kick off the legislative session gave private sector growth only a passing comment before he then talked about the importance of raising taxes on inventory.

The lack of interest in learning the lessons of our growing private sector should be scary for anyone hoping for good economic policy to come out of this session. The money grab is on and folks don’t care where the money comes from.

Louisiana’s private sector growth, while admired around the country, is viewed almost warily by most in the Capitol. It is thought by some to be either an aberration or a source of guilt by those who value Louisiana’s might solely by the size of its government growth.

Instead of focusing on priority issues to help grow our economy even more, such as elementary education (72 bills), higher education (59 bills), transportation (127 bills), health care (66 bills), workforce (40 bills) and coastal (22 bills), legislators aggressively filed instruments focused instead on grabbing more of your dollars by introducing a host of bills pertaining to credits (300 bills) and revenue (251 bills).

Our state pension costs have increased 80 percent over the last 10 years and our teacher pension costs have gone up 124 percent over the same time, leaving a huge cost burden on the budgets of K-12 and higher education. These escalating costs are threatening the productivity of our government and our refusal to address the problem is continuously increasing the debt burden for our children. Despite this well-known challenge to our budget stability, lawmakers introduced only 19 bills dealing with pensions.

Coincidentally, tobacco (34) and cigarettes (18) are mentioned roughly the same amount of times as tuition (32) and TOPS (14). Legislators seem to also have balanced interest on issues pertaining to locals (252) and businesses (255).

The 144 legislators representing the 18th State of the Union have their work cut out for them and a quick subject review of the bills they have already filed paints a clear picture of the plan. Efforts to raise taxes are being pushed more aggressively than ways to shrink a government that has grown $9 billion over the last decade.

A quick review of the bills introduced this session tells a distinct story. The numbers behind that story paint a clear picture. Tax increases are en vogue in the Capitol these days, even if the numbers behind their harmful impact on our growing economy don’t add up.