APPEL: Louisiana Needs A New Fiscal Model

On Monday we start a new session; more importantly, as I have written, we start a session that offers opportunities to change direction and to create a structure of government that can take us into the 21st century.

There are 144 members of the Legislature which means that there are 144 sets of ideas on what we must do. Some of these people believe that we are just fine if we just spend more money, some feel that we must just cut the size of government no matter the consequence, and some don’t really think in the abstract at all, preferring just to lay low and not do anything that would hurt their re-selection chances.

I consider myself a hybrid of sorts; I believe that we probably need to spend more money on important state priorities, but we need to spend it in a logical way, a way that achieves a positive goal for the people of Louisiana. My belief is that we must start by defining the role of state government as it relates to local government. Taking my thinking a step further along, this means also that we must define where the sources of revenue for the various forms of government should be derived.

To my way of thinking, in a perfectly executed government model, funds would be raised and spent nearest to where the leaders who are responsible for them are elected. In this model the way that the citizens can expect good outcomes is if the leaders who are responsible for taxing, spending, and results are also the leaders who are most closely scrutinized by the taxpayers.

The other element of my perfect model is that there are functions of government that should be paid for by local taxes and those that should be paid for by state taxes. In general, and to the greatest extent possible, taxes spent by local government must be raised locally. This empowers voters to understand how their taxes are being spent and to take action when they are not being well served.

Over the many years more and more state funds are being sent to local governing bodies; today much more than $4 billion is taken from state coffers and sent to local Parishes, municipalities, and non-government organizations. These are state general fund dollars and capital outlay dollars that should go to pay for vital state services. Services like higher education, infrastructure, and healthcare that are always chronically short of state support.

There is no question that the state is perpetually short of funds for its own important responsibilities and there is no question is that we divert our state resources to local uses. It is simply politically expedient for state politicians send scarce state funds to all the local government bodies that have strong lobbying arms in Baton Rouge and to local uses that provide legislators bragging rights back home.

To my thinking the unintended consequence of this practice is that it shelters the local politician from close scrutiny by the people. As long as the state supplies ever larger sums to bulk up their local budgets, local leaders do not have to be as responsible to their constituents.

I certainly am not trying to paint local elected officials as disingenuous, it is simply human nature for these good people to not want to have to face their voters with their spending habits on full display. Also, I do recognize that there will always be some overlap between state programs and local programs, except not to the extreme that we face today.

So there it is, in my mind very high on our list of reforms starting this session must be to wean local government off of as much state support as is possible. This will take time; we cannot undo decades of bad government practice in a short time, but if we do not make a start we will never get to a place where we can spend in accordance with state priorities.

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