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Lucky local govts need long-term thinking on largesse

While the consumption decisions of individual recipients of Haynesville Shale largesse might be described as any or all of intriguing, humorous, or boorish – dining out habits going from hot wings and light beer to shrimp cocktail and Budini malbec, driving choices from economy cars to souped-up pickups and boat-like luxury cars, lots more gold chains – it becomes more alarming when governments start approaching Beverly Hillbillies territory.

Such increasingly seems to be the case with school districts blessed with this bonus in places such as Red River, DeSoto, and Bienville parishes. Salaries have rocketed upwards as has sales tax receipts, with some leasing activity thrown in, to enrich these governments. For contrast, rookie teachers in DeSoto make more than a 20-year tenured professor in higher education.

Some jurisdictions have bumped these salaries with regular bonuses, while actually have permanently written them into salary schedules. There are worse things on which to spend, with the classic example being the drunken sailor behavior of Bossier City for the past decade-and-a-half that led to an ugly day of reckoning. But who knows how long this extra revenue will last? And with there being little relationship between teacher quality and pay (although this may change if the state moves to a realistic and effective evaluation system), it’s questionable whether these schemes best serve taxpayers.

Unfortunately, it best serves school board members. Happy teachers with padded pay stubs and their families tend to vote for incumbents. This same Santa Claus dynamic also discourages a potentially much better long-term strategy, suspending portions of sales taxes and giving smaller increases, in order to encourage economic development. Because boards are concerned parochially only with education, they have no incentive to look towards the greater economic benefit of the area and its citizens which in the long run would boost tax revenues. Even if all other geographically coterminous and enveloped local governments also suspended part of their sales taxes, likely school boards would not follow because they see their constituencies as educators, then children, with the people dragging the rear.

So, the next best thing would be to create a special fund into which the relative excess of revenues should flow. Salary supplements can be reduced with that not apportioned out put into these funds. Over the next couple of decades, if the shale activity lasts that long, a tidy sum can be accumulated and the interest earnings off of it can be there for supplements when activity does slow, or if it continues can be used for other education purposes. This will prevent trying to squeeze more tax revenues out of the public and might make the public more amenable to continuing funding any existing property tax levies; without such funds, more astute members of the citizenry might call for and succeed in getting the levies expired by a negative public vote since, they can successfully argue, shale money could make up the difference.

It’s what Bossier City should have done with its gambling windfall, but failed to do so. Let’s hope that not just school districts but all local governments so blessed have greater wisdom going forward on this matter.

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