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Amendment makes overspending more likely

It’s a blast from the past under one proposal scheduled for hearing this 2018 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature, concerning the content of legislative sessions.

The current 1974 Constitution, when originally implemented, inverted a two-decade interval of biennial fiscal-only sessions offset by sessions of general subject matter by having alternating general and non-fiscal sessions. However, a 1993 amendment restored matters to that of two decades prior, putting in odd-numbered years a shorter fiscal-only session. In 2002, commencing in 2004, the present calendar came forth with passage of an amendment to switch up years and allow each legislator to file five general bills not prefiled and an unlimited number of special and local bills during the odd-numbered year fiscal sessions.

This strategy supposedly would allow legislators to concentrate more fully on fiscal matters. The timing of having fiscal-only sessions – which really barely restricted lawmakers as long as they hustled to prefile – originally during even-numbered years would allow newly-elected legislators to move quickly on priorities they had stressed in their campaigns.

But just a couple of election cycles revealed reticence among lawmakers to tackle tax matters in the odd-numbered years immediately prior to elections, prompting the switch. That arrangement proved inconvenient in 2016 and earlier this year for sessions called to deal with forecast budget shortfalls, prompting a bill from Republican state Rep. Julie Stokes to shuffle lengths and subjects yet another time.

In essence, her HB 541 would put to voters an amendment that would recreate things as they stood prior to 1954. Stokes says, that by lengthening even-numbered-year sessions and making these general, this would put an end to special sessions as seen this year and two years ago, saving taxpayer dollars.

However, this takes too short term of a view. Recognize that only three special sessions since the 2004 change occurred to deal with monetary matters, and the one in 2008, in the first three months of Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, actually cut taxes. Only Democrat current Gov. John Bel Edwards has called sessions with the explicit purpose of raising taxes and, unlike Jindal, he has brought about sessions concerning taxes twice.

That’s significant. Jindal had his session mainly because he wanted to lower business taxes – and, it turned out, some individual income taxes – which technically if involving only marginal rates could be done during a general session, but Jindal did not want any distractions to that task that the regular session would present. Regardless, throughout his governorship, with the exception of comprehensive tax reform posed in 2013, the Legislature and he appeared like-minded in wanting to cut taxes, or even raise these in 2015.

Contrast this with Edwards, who has used his two sessions as cudgels to raise taxes, to attempt to take the Legislature, particularly the House, in a direction its majority resisted. That also differs from Jindal’s predecessor Democrat former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who mostly raised taxes and found a compliant Legislature most of the time to ratify her choices (including when she proposed some small cuts to business utility levies).

In this sense, having 2016 and 2018 special sessions isn’t an artifact of a deficient system, but of divided government. For the first time in decades, fundamental disagreement exists between one branch of government and at least one chamber of the other on the issue of the size of government. And that inherent systemic quality is a good thing: raising taxes should be made as difficult as possible to guard against oppressive government taking more and more of the peoples’ earnings – especially when those elected to represent the people have such a sharp divergence of opinion of its appropriateness.

Simply, the fewer obstacles to raising taxes, the greater the temptation for government to do so and thereby expand unwisely. HB 541 dilutes this safeguard and thus merits defeat.

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