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Dardenne policy should focus on taxpayers, not ambitions

So Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne breathes a sign of relief, after two statewide elections in two years, and four in the past five, now that he appears to have plenty of time to govern rather than campaign. Mind you, the campaigning part was his own choice – he didn’t have to run for Secretary of State in a special 2006 election, then run for the regular job, only to seek successfully to abandon it in 2010 for this job. And now this progressive ambition threatens unwise prioritization of Louisiana tax dollars.

Unsatisfied with the opportunities provided by the secretary of state’s job, when assuming his current position after the special election in 2010, Dardenne must have felt even less fulfilled. Given this job-hopping pattern, it’s unlikely that Dardenne does not aspire to something even higher and with far more policy-making importance than this or his previous job. And to parlay his current position into that future, he must depend upon a historical fluke that without would make the leveraging power of his position virtually nil.

The Louisiana Constitution provides the lieutenant governor with no power. This was as the guiding force behind the 1974 (the latest) Constitution, then (before becoming Prisoner #03128-095) Gov. Edwin Edwards, intended.
Previously, this officer had served as president of the Senate, but Edwards wanted no competitors to his wielding of power and had the office neutered. And, in the first couple of years of operation, the office remained without legislatively assigned powers.

But this arrangement dissatisfied its occupant, Jimmy Fitzmorris, who had served as Senate president until passage of the new constitution. An Edwards ally then, Edwards decided to placate him by asking what expanded duties he might like. When Fitzmorris expressed an interest in tourism, Edwards got the Legislature to put the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism under the authority of the lieutenant governor, including the power to name its secretary but also leaving open the option of running the department by him, for no additional salary.

Traditionally, lieutenant governors had appointed a secretary, but Dardenne showed political acumen by not doing so in a move that demonstrated the absolute benefit of thrift, the political benefit of appearing parsimonious with taxpayer dollars, and the career benefit of giving himself something more to do to build a policy-making record. However, to create a legacy impressive enough to commend one to voters for a higher office, one needs resources, and in these tighter budgetary times they have become harder to come by.

For this fiscal year, the department is due around $86 million, all of it by appropriation by the Legislature. Technically, 0.03 percent of sales tax collected by the state goes to tourism spending and promotion, but is not dedicated to CRT. Of the $24.5 million collected this way, less than half ended up actually going into CRT (although that was more than doubled from the previous year) with the other portion paying for other tourism-related projects.

Those kinds of reallocation have drawn Dardenne’s complaint, who argues diversions of that nature from his department’s budget (cut about 16 percent from last year) ought to spare CRT and come out of the general fund. He declares such removals counterproductive, as, he asserts, for every buck spent on tourism draws $17 to the state.

Of course, this statement is nonsense if not trite. To expand on its silliness, this would mean that, assuming an average local sales tax rate of 4 percent, that for every dollar spent on tourism by the state, state and local governments would reap $1.36 in extra revenues -- and this does not include other taxes such as gasoline at the state level and hotel taxes at the local level. By this logic, we should plow the entire state budget into tourism because the more we spend on it, the more we get back.

In reality, tourism provides only a limited return and its promotion is a low priority item compared to the many other pressing tasks of state government. Thus, if need be to pay for items such as Super Bowl hosting, it is entirely appropriate to take that out of the dedication, and thus out of the hands of Dardenne, if it frees up dollars elsewhere in the budget. This may impair his ability to show an ability to do stuff and justify his administration of these matters, but perhaps the real metric of him should be on how well he copes with a declining revenue picture. It may not serve his ambitions, but it does better serve taxpayers.


LaStatesman2010 said...

You left out the job creation that the tourism industry brings to the state. Nobody is arguing that we should throw the entire budget into tourism promotion, but we shouldn't take away money dedicated to tourism to fund things like Super Bowl hosting. Tourism is a very important industry in LA, especially after suffering devastating affects from the oil spill and hurricanes. Tourism deserves the funding it was promised by the legislature. The ROI is substantial. As for Dardenne better serving taxpayers. I agree he should, and I think he has done well so far. He eliminated the secretary position, saving $130k/year. Angelle didn't do that. Landrieu didn't either. CRT has fewer employees than ever and yet tourism jobs are going up. Seems to me Dardenne is doing about as well as we can hope. Let's pay close attention over his term to see if the good work is kept up.

Jeff Sadow said...

If you eliminated the various ad campaigns, I'll bet very few tourism dollars would be lost. The so-called magic "x:1" ratio is little more than a figure pulled out of the air, with no real rigorous, verifiable analysis to prove its veracity. The subsidies to events may actually break even, but I even have my doubts with that.