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Session results showing reform attitude unentrenched

As Gov. Bobby Jindal is discovering, you can lead a legislator to decent legislation, but you just can’t make him pass it. Conniptions gushing from the Louisiana Legislature over the past few days hammer home this point.

In its second special session of the year devoted on this occasion to fiscal matters, the House adjusted Jindal’s desired spending priorities by shaving money off of assistance to higher education, paying down the state’s unfunded accrued liabilities when it could be done for less than 24 cents on the dollar, and by slicing money from bridge repair, in order to send it to rural roads desires that otherwise are not part of the state’s plan for transportation. Jindal apparently had to swallow these redirections for needed rural legislator votes to raise the state’s spending cap.

(A review of the Constitution lends credence to the belief that these nonrecurring expenses could not be used for one-time tax rebate relief. Given the ambiguity, it would be wise to amend the Constitution to allow precisely that. Even if it generally is not a good idea, the option still should be available.)

Then the Senate tacked on some (relatively) small extra expenses in order for Jindal’s proposal to allow tax deductions for private school tuition and home schooling to pass, making expenses of textbooks and school uniforms deductible for any family with children in any school. This was on top of the Senate already forcing Jindal not only to phase in his plan to redirect transportation revenues to transportation-only capital expenditures in order to eat away at a $14 billion backlog of transportation needs, but also in containing a trigger that would shunt these revenues into the general fund to be spent on any purpose if otherwise a deficit was estimated.

It could have been worse as complaints were had that the $137 million of the $1.088 billion nonrecurring fund surplus that were not dedicated to a specific highway project (not including bridges) would be decided by the Jindal Administration and there were moves to take some of that money and dedicate it to other projects not involving transportation. Naturally, this sentiment reflects legislative hypocrisy in that it fully is within the power of legislators to decide this on their own, but for political reasons they default that choice to the governor.

Additionally, the removal of the $30 million shows the same old mentality that has made the state an inefficient user of the people’s money: deciding state spending priorities more on the basis of politics than genuine statewide needs. This shortcoming could fixed if the state would lower taxes, declare itself out of the business of financing local government needs, and then invite local governments to raise taxes to fund their own projects.

If this is the only damage to Jindal’s plans – and it appears it will be – then the session like the previous one largely will be a qualified success. Still, the fact that legislators let politics in the areas of spending priorities interfere with better uses of those funds shows just how much work reformers have in getting the state to spend the people’s resources in the wisest possible fashion and in repudiating the idea that government exists primarily to enable cooperative activities rather than to redistribute wealth.

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