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Citizens deserve analysis, not posturing, in budget talks

Because of the asymmetry of information that exists between Louisiana’s executive branch and its legislative in the matter of budgeting – the former knows far better the intricacies of program operation – when legislative committees get together some members end up using the occasion more for trying to score political points than any substantive discussion of the material. It’s particularly lamentable when an officer of the committee pursues this strategy, but that’s what we got in the Senate Finance Committee’s recent meeting over several categorical areas within Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget.

Perhaps more than any other department in state government this year, streamlining is shaping the Department of Social Services with the transfer of several functions out of it. However, it also is facing some resource cuts as well, which raised the hackles of committee Vice Chairwoman Democrat state Sen. Lydia Jackson. Told that, among others things, summer programs for “at-risk” youth and tax preparation help for low income individuals is being cut, she declared there was forming a “a gap in services,” implying the necessity of government spending in these areas.

But just what are these “services?” For one, last year the state spent $1.2 million on telling low income people how to fill out tax returns. This comes as a result of encouraging them to take the two earned income tax credits, the federal and state. Essentially, this redistributes money from taxpayers to individuals who make little money and do not pay taxes. And the state devoted this money to telling them how to apply for it.

Although both federal and state tax forms are needlessly complicated because of needlessly complicated tax codes, if you make little money, the rudimentary schedules are very simple to fill out. So why spend government money on a very basic thing just to help people get more government money? After all, if you can hold a job, it means it should be able to read and write. Oh, and, actually, the state version of the EITC began just a couple of years ago, the legislation authored by none other than – wait for it – Lydia Jackson.

Another service facing cuts are after-school activities – a notorious budgetary haven for nongovernmental organizations to get money from the state. Last year, budgetary legerdemain incident to a tax increase tried to shift hundreds of thousands of dollars to these organizations, which Jindal wisely vetoed. Is this the “gap in services” Jackson wishes to defend? Are these the kinds of things that the state and its people, as Jackson implies, really can’t do without?

Jackson also got exercised about a hike in personal drivers’ license fees from $21.50 to $36.50 over four years, the current charge for a commercial driver’s license. This is permitted under a state law passed almost two decades ago to provide funding for the National Drivers Registry, which aids in identifying illegal aliens, sex offenders, and bad drivers but was not charged by the state on these kinds of license until yesterday.

However, Jackson called it a “tax increase” because she claimed it cost more than the service being provided. Saying Jindal had often said he would not go along with tax increases, she sniffed “It must not be a tax because it’s coming from the Jindal administration.” Never mind, of course, that a tax is an involuntary payment collected incident to an activity, while a fee is collected for performing a voluntary service – nobody is compelled to operate a motor vehicle which is considered a privilege, not a right.

State police head Col. Mike Edmonson defended the increase for the value it added to the licensing process. In addition, the estimated $13 million extra collected annually would offset general fund money of slightly more that had been going to this operation. He said he did not know the exact cost of processing and maintaining the value of a license and was asked by other legislators to look into that.

Citizens deserve more out of their legislators than pithy bromides that lack logic, don’t look at all the facts, and are more boilerplate than analysis. Jackson would do service to her constituents and the state if she adopted that attitude.

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