At the close of 2018, Dardenne, who works for Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, had unkind words for the state House of Representatives majority Republican leadership that, like he, served on the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference. The panel, which additionally has representation from the current state Senate Republican leadership and an independent economist, determines the amount of revenue the state legally may use in budgeting and requires unanimity to set a new target.
Back then, House leaders refused to assent to higher figures predicted by economists from the executive and legislative branches. They would do so several more times over the next few months before finally accepting a figure lower than the initial one not long before the budget came due. This, Dardenne said at the outset, amounted to obstruction of the budgeting process for political reasons.
Never mind that Republican leaders’ doubts about the original number overshooting proved correct. More disturbingly, by his remarks Dardenne showed an inability to understand the Louisiana Constitution. The amendment which put the REC and its process into the document didn’t mandate that the four principals involved involuntarily accept whatever estimates came from the government economists, but that they employ judgment in whether to accept a change.
But now the shoe is on the other foot. In the REC meeting last week, new House Speaker Republican Clay Schexnayder and new Senate Pres. Republican Page Cortez both objected to an estimate of $170 million more this year (which would have to go to nonrecurring items) and $103 million for next year. Schexnayder, backed by Cortez, made a counterproposal to raise next year’s by $94 million and keep this year’s essentially flat. They called it a reasonable attempt at a middle ground, citing past inaccuracies in forecasts but most significantly that Republican state Treas. John Schroder said he would break with past practice and not release $25 million bankrolled into the state’s unclaimed property fund – money which technically doesn’t belong to it – that Edwards counted on.
Dardenne then found himself the obstructionist when he cast the only vote against that, essentially twice which led to no revised forecast. Without any hint he understood the irony of what he said, he argued that, if REC members voted other than what the government economists dictated, then why have them – but if in his logic REC members must vote with the economists, then why have the REC?
Doubling down on this lack of self-awareness, Dardenne deemed the REC merely a tool of “experts” and that Schexnayder should ask to amend the Constitution to change that. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that he should find a friendly legislator to file a bill to amend out the entirely (in his view) useless REC, removing this unneeded rubber stamp that serves only as an impediment to government by unelected experts.
Dardenne seems blissfully ignorant the reason to have the REC as is allows for political judgment to adjust for political realities, such as the Schroder gambit that creates uncertainty about the forecast, and to increase policy-making accountability. If two unelected economists (who actually are hired by politicians) create a forecast that is well off the mark negatively, they don’t lose their jobs, but legislators that must grapple with the resulting budget deficit might due to voter ire because they blindly followed that prediction as gospel. Why not build in a buffer to avoid deficits, which is neither “arbitrary” as Dardenne claimed nor unwise.
As Cortez pointed out, even the two economists can disagree (using a current sales tax collection example) upwards of $100 million, highlighting the desirability of using the REC as a tool to decrease uncertainty. But rather than take a conservative approach to reduce the possibility of deficits, Dardenne seems more interested in using the REC to suck up as many dollars as possible with no margin for error and no room to mitigate the consequences of forecasts that end up too optimistic.
It’s the difference between the tax-and-spend philosophy of Dardenne’s Democrat boss and a more prudent, right-sizing strategy of Republican legislative leaders. In the final analysis, contrary to Dardenne’s erroneous thinking, his allegedly apolitical theory of REC behavior –parroting later comments by Edwards – betrays a political agenda, and he hypocritically obstructs on that basis.