Search This Blog


Panels disapprove tax rebate, approve hiking debt limit

There is a fair amount of sentiment in favor of raising Louisiana legislators’ salaries among them. But it’s hard to justify them earning what they currently do when they end up making bonehead decisions about the mechanics of their job in the first place, as illustrated in recent committee decisions.

The House Appropriations Committee rejected the idea behind HB 834 by state Rep. Rickey Nowlin, which would give lawmakers a seventh option for dealing with declared nonrecurring surpluses of money from a forecast by the Revenue Estimating Conference. Presently, such money cannot be used for a direct rebate to taxpayers (there actually are cumbersome indirect ways to do it dependent upon the state having debt, but these violate the spirit of the Constitution).

The bill would have allowed it, yet the panel shot it down amid discussion about how pressing needs for spending the money were elsewhere. But what in the world was wrong with giving future legislators at least the option of doing this? It’s not like the bill would put a gun to the heads of legislators to force them to utilize tax rebates. Further, it was to be a constitutional amendment requiring affirmative vote of the people, so why not pass it and give them the opportunity to determine whether legislators should have the option? It’s almost as if present legislators were scared of being given the freedom to and having to make the choice to return the people’s money to them.

To make matters worse, other representatives wanted to allow the state to play a shell game with reporting the amount of debt the state owed as well as finding a away to circumvent the state’s debt ceiling. SB 796 by state Sen. Joe McPherson would remove from official debt calculations, which are used to determine how much debt can be issued subject to a six percent limit of revenues estimated by the Conference for the year of all outstanding debt during that year, any debt that has a dedicated revenue stream courtesy of a statewide vote. Practically speaking only the TIMED program for highway construction fall under this criterion presently, financed by a four cent a gallon sales tax, but that comprises roughly half of the debt currently being issued every year.

McPherson asserts that the change will not substantially increase the amount of debt the state would be able to issue. This is because the bill in essence creates a higher ceiling allowing the issuance of more debt, but that issuing too much debt should not be a concern since the state is well under the six percent ceiling presently and that its self-imposed limit (currently about $267 million) of per-year non-emergency general obligation bonds which is how capital outlay projects are other than TIMED projects are funded, so provisions like these will keep a lid on things.

But what McPherson doesn’t mention is that the Legislature could get rid of its self-imposition at any time since the general obligation bond limit is by statute unlike the six percent constitutional limit and then go on a borrowing spree facilitated by this change. Further, projections are that, especially with disaster relief-related bonds issued in the past couple of years and in the future, by 2015-2016 the state will be close to bumping up against the limit. Changing the definition would allow billions more of debt to be issued beyond the current limit as TIMED, which historically has run well behind schedule, may well continue past this date.

But as objectionable is the fact that, for legal purposes, the bill would try to call something a thing that it isn’t. As House Ways and Means Committee Chairman state Rep. Hunter Greene told McPherson, “debt is debt.” No matter how it is funded, borrowed money is just that and it is semantically irresponsible to call it anything but. For his part, McPherson railed about “irresponsibility” of some lawmakers’ statements but mainly of reporters who would file stories about the state’s per capita debt that included TIMED debt, saying it misrepresented the situation.

Actually, it is McPherson whose idea here would misrepresent. Greene, among others, subtly suggested that maybe reports issued by the state should include debt as presently defined and then broken down into revenue-supported and not, but in the end while he and several committee members voted against the bill, it eked out an 8-6 win. The good news is that if such a division translates into the House vote, it will fail as changing the definition according to the Constitution would require a two-thirds vote.

Still, it is disappointing that legislators to date would act to limit their options that could increase chances of the people retaining their own money while simultaneously practicing subterfuge concerning the real amount of debt issued by the state. Both separately are more than sufficient reasons to explain why legislators do not deserve a pay raise, if not to question whether they deserve to be paid at the rate they draw presently.

No comments: