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Where Do We Go From Here?

July 27, 2015

By: Stephen Waguespack

So where do we go from here?

The legislative session that adjourned in June left many folks frustrated. While everyone was satisfied that the budgets for health care and higher education were stabilized, the exclusive dependence on new taxes to accomplish this objective has led to quite a bit of concern. 

Employers, both small and large, expressed frustration due to the fact that the lion’s share of these new taxes fell on their backs. Legislators seemed frustrated with the contentiousness of the session and the awkward and confusing guardrails set up by the administration. Individual taxpayers felt frustrated because a comprehensive approach to smart budgeting seems to still be an illusive goal.

Legislative and judicial budgets were not cut this session. The populist subsidies to local governments that have dominated Louisiana’s budgeting process for decades were neither reduced nor replaced with more sustainable financing mechanisms. Entitlement programs that take up more and more of the state’s tax dollars every year were not reformed. The hundreds of dedicated funds and lock boxes that state government has created over the years to wall off most of the budget from priorities like higher education and health care were not examined nor repealed.

While this fall’s election season will provide plenty of opportunity to discuss what happened last session, it is even more critical for us all to focus on what we want to accomplish going forward. The windshield is much more important to the future of this state than the rear view mirror and we, the people, must chart the path ahead.

The danger of spending all of our time looking backward and citing the problems of the past is that we may lose sight of what we want to achieve in the future. Are we a state committed to bickering about what has already happened or one that is ready to work together and build the new economic engine of the south that Louisiana is primed to become? I think we should choose the latter.

So, in preparing for this effort, it may be helpful to lay out some items that we should all think about as we listen to and converse with the candidates for election this fall.

First, let’s talk to candidates about the budget. Ask them if they think the primary reason for deficits is a revenue problem or a spending problem.

The state budget is roughly $9 billion higher than a decade ago, but deficits are an annual item of discussion. Incentives for economic development are commonly cited as the primary reason for this, though the largest tax decreases passed in the last decade are rate reductions and reincorporation of excess itemized deductions for individuals. The state cost share for government pensions has skyrocketed in the past decade, with state retirement costs increasing by 80 percent and teacher pension costs increasing by 124 percent. 

Lock boxes, dedicated funds and other tripwire continue to tie up the budget and render most of the state’s dollars unusable for key priorities. Excluding the Transportation Trust Fund, there are nearly 400 dedicated funds appropriating at least $2.5 billion in this year’s state budget. This system of budget dedications contributes to the problem that very few of our tax dollars are available for critical services such as higher education and healthcare. Legislation by Rep. Kirk Talbot to resolve this inequity and repeal these funds did not even get a committee hearing this past session. If a candidate says the state’s problem is not enough revenue, it is important to ask why it would not be better to use existing tax dollars to fund priorities like health care and higher education before asking for more money.

Second, let’s ask candidates about public education.

Over the last decade, Louisiana has passed several laws that are viewed nationally as some of the most impressive in the country. Implementation has been a mixed bag, but as of late, it has begun to shine. These new laws have helped to attract numerous high-quality charter school operators to the state; provided choice and opportunity for over 80,000 Louisiana kids; led to the highest number of students passing the ACT in Louisiana history; given parents clear information and data on the performance of their local schools; and proven that Louisiana teachers and students can compete with any classroom in the world if given the expectations and tools to succeed. While this is great progress in a short window, we know that we are just beginning to make up for decades of lost time.

Louisiana ranks No. 48 in reading and No. 50 in math. That unfortunately has been the case for a long time, despite the effort and dedication of many educators over the years. As a country, the United States is No. 17 and No. 26 in those critical subjects and starting to fall behind some of our international competitors. Considering the global economy now demands more of our students than ever before, we simply must up our game to continue American economic dominance. If a candidate says the problem is that we have put too many reforms and expectations on the books, ask them clearly to explain how returning to the way Louisiana used to do things will prepare us for the future.

Rightly or wrongly, we live in an era where those that run for public office are held to much scrutiny. Every vote and statement is blasted out on social media and debated ad nauseam by friend and foe alike. That much information has proven helpful to keep our electorate informed, but the pure quantity of it can sometimes lead to its impact being drowned out by all the noise.

As we try to see through the clutter and prepare for the fall’s elections that will bring a new administration and Legislature, it may be helpful to focus on a few basic questions. Does your candidate think the state budget has primarily a revenue problem or a spending problem? Does your candidate think we can more efficiently use existing dollars by cutting government waste and unlocking the maze of dedicated funds or do they support protecting them both going forward? Does your candidate think that the reforms that are beginning to improve educational outcomes need time and focused attention to achieve greater heights or do they support turning back the clock and retreating on choice and accountability?

There are several other items important to the future of Louisiana, including improving its transportation system, bringing common sense reforms to the legal system, fighting back against excessive regulation from Washington, D.C. and protecting the ability for small business owners to compete in the new economy. These all are worthy of discussion and deliberation by candidates running this fall.

Candidates and elected officials respond to what they hear from their constituents.  This fall, make sure you do your part. Ask the questions. Listen to the answers. Make your voice heard. Where we go from here depends entirely on we, the people.