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NW LA legislators need to turn cheap talk into real action

Maybe northwest Louisiana state Reps. Richard Burford, Thomas Carmody, Jim Morris, Alan Seabaugh, and Jeff Thompson finally will get serious about reforming Louisiana’s budget process so that it aligns resources to needs in order of priority with a right-sized government. Because up until now they have been all words and no deeds, and speaking fraudulently at that.

These guys, who include every Republican member of the House from the area save state Rep. Henry Burns, pledged themselves as founding members of the Louisiana Budget Reform Coalition – with Morris being tabbed its vice chairman – along with another 20 House members. The group is an offshoot of efforts during the past legislative session to pare down the size of the state’s budget principally by refusing to scoop monies sitting in hundreds of dedicated funds to transfer to the state’s general funds in order to pay for spending. It failed, but got attention and produced impetus apparently to make formal this group.

Unfortunately, that exercise was entirely disingenuous. The only difference between most of the “one-time” money they declared taboo and revenues coming into the general fund is bookkeeping in nature. Most of these funds, like those going into the general fund, are recurring in nature, except that the constitution or statute directs them to be spent on a particular purpose. The problem is, some portion of these end up being in excess of what is spent on those purposes, usually because those items aren’t that important but got locked in because of the power of particular interests that wished to see guaranteed financing of something. Then these dollars become useless, siphoned from the public yet piling up year after year unless an appropriations bill termed a “funds sweep” is passed rescuing a part of them for some often more important purposes.

Yet these and other representatives falsely implied that money collected from these were surprise bucks that would not recur in some predictable fashion and so to use them was irresponsible. In fact, these advocates were the irresponsible ones by cordoning off these funds arbitrarily and avoiding any role (beyond producing a vague list of generalities that actually included using one-time money) in addressing specific cuts or other tactics to solve for the hole they wished to blow into the budget.

Creating this false crisis happened either because they didn’t understand their own jobs or because of political posturing, to contrive to appear as “budget hawks” in order to please fiscally conservative voters and other interests. Neither ignorance nor putting symbolism over substance commends them in their positions. But there is every incentive for them to allow perpetuation of this as, regardless of motive, it allows a fiscal structure that permits them to avoid making hard choices every year, and absorbing the potential wrath of those interests that lose out in the process.

But now with this new group they have the chance to move beyond hot air and into constructive action. That won’t be accomplished with a continuation of their jihad against one-time money but rather in making fundamental policy changes. Chief among them would be stumping to reduce drastically the number of dedicated funding streams that has left nearly $3 billion sitting around in surplus. At the very least they need to call for state government to follow R.S. 49:308.5, which is supposed to mandate investigation of this matter but which has been ignored by them and every other state policy-maker.

Along with that, they need to extend the work of another recently established but official panel that seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of exceptions to the state tax code. They need to run with its suggestions – chief of which should be abolishment of the motion picture tax credit that costs citizens a dollar for every 13.5 cents it brings in – and shape them into a revenue-neutral reform package that cuts down on both the exceptions and dedications. This includes formulating just what genuine state needs are and coming up with a revenue code short on both exceptions to it and on dedicated funding.

It is the job of the legislator to make decisions matching funding to need and in what priority, most responsibly on an annual basis as the funds available, needs, and priorities change year over year. It is not tolerating the commission of about three-quarters of all revenues to various locked-in raising and spending purposes, then each year throwing up their hands saying there’s nothing you can do about government on autopilot except prohibit excess money from being spent because it operates under slightly different accounting without any thought being put into the spending side of the equation. And while every legislator present and past for decades has contributed to building this inefficient fiscal regime, those who claim they are fiscal conservatives and organize as such have the duty to try to change it, as outlined above.

If Morris and his colleagues instead just prattle on about the imaginary evils of one-time money and only try to excommunicate it from budgeting, recognize that they are not fiscal conservatives but rather political opportunists trying to fool their constituents in order to make their political careers easier and more certain. Such continued irresponsibility sabotages the real chance this group has to make a positive, substantive difference.

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