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Except on roads, spending cuts wanted over tax hikes

The Louisiana public gives a green light to somewhat higher gasoline taxes but appears skeptical of tax increases as a general policy, according to a survey that also indicates the people’s preference to cut state spending before raising taxes in general.

Yesterday, the Louisiana State University Public Policy Lab released the first installment of its annual survey. Just over 1,000 respondents produced a margin of error of a little over three percent, although the low response rate (which tends to induce bias in measuring a select set of behaviors) and extended period (a month long) over which it collected data presents a little caution concerning whether the results capture accurately attitudes on the eve of the 2017 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature.

One thing clearly comes through from the rich array of data presented: their reaffirmation of the tendency of Louisianans to identify by perceived in-groups and out-groups and citizens’ willingness to cast blame or foist solutions on out-group members. This resonates as a legacy of the state’s populist political culture, which encourages a Manichean worldview that see politics as a zero-sum game: policy must favor your group at the expense of others alleged to get the better of you in order to even things out, leading to countenance of government-led redistribution.

Thus, typical respondents, no matter how low their income except in the case of the very highest earners, saw those not much above their income levels as the “wealthier” whom they further maintained did not pay their “fair share” in taxes. In another instance, participants were much more likely to maintain that “corporations” did not pay enough than they did in the case of “business.” They also exhibited healthy skepticism of the performance of governing elites in general, where almost two-fifths felt more efficient government attainable to the tune of at least 10 percent savings, reflecting the Gallic tension of hostility towards how government runs the state yet their embrace of it as a tool to bring their group benefits.

In more specific policy terms, the distrust of government also comes through. In asking about six issue areas, majorities for four – higher education, elementary and secondary education, health care, and transportation – thought spending should increase and even would back higher taxes for these. Spending for prisons and social welfare functions found lower support with majorities preferring no greater spending, if not less, and no more taxation for these.

But when asked generally about raising taxes as opposed to reducing spending across government, about three-fifths preferred to shrink government, not spend and tax more. Therefore, this leaves a governance issue: how to target tax increases to boost spending in the preferred areas yet manage reductions elsewhere.

In turn, this creates a largely insoluble problem, for the nature of taxation makes it difficult to link relatively volatile sources of it to specific functional areas. Sales and income taxes can fluctuate quite a bit, so any linkage would have policy driven by the amounts collected for the different categories, not by any assessment of genuine needs rank ordered. One of the two relatively stable revenue sources, property taxes, Louisiana policy-makers realistically also cannot use for this purpose given its low level authorized in the Constitution.

But the other, excise taxes, can work, in the case of the gasoline tax and roads. The survey further amplified this in asking about acceptance levels for various scenarios, concluding that majorities supported up to a 20 cent per gallon increase, with bipartisan agreement up to 15 cents. This provides the poll’s only measured public support of an issue which unambiguously asks for more spending and a dedicated tax increase attached to it, data upon which policy-makers may seize to advance just that next month.

The results also point to another potential policy alteration. It turns out that the public likes least the current funding strategy for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, giving out partial awards across the board when not funded fully. The people rather would see qualifications hiked or a means test applied to award full amounts to fewer recipients. Yet this seems less likely to gain traction than raising the gasoline tax, as lawmakers adopted the strategy of giving everybody a haircut out of fear to exclude some might cost them votes come reelection time, and that sentiment among them unlikely has changed.

In the final analysis, out of this upcoming session the public may acquiesce to increased spending on roads through higher gas taxes, but prefers to see spending generally reduced otherwise, believing in fact that a significant portion can come through efficiency gains. In particular, these attitudes moot much of the agenda of Gov. John Bel Edwards and give comfort to the one item, ironically, he has resisted from personally backing.

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