A week from now, according to a call sent out by Louisiana’s increasingly desperate governor John Bel Edwards, the state legislature will be back at the capitol for the fourth session of the 2018 calendar year – and the 10th legislative session since Edwards took office in January of 2016.
At no time in recent state history has the Louisiana legislature had 10 legislative sessions in less than 2 1/2 years. The legislators serving in the current term can best be described as horribly abused by Edwards, whose allies are now spreading the meme that these public servants, many of whom we don’t hold in the highest regard, should forego the per diem pay they’re allowed under state law for the next special session and thus save the state treasury some part of the $60,000 per day a special session costs the taxpayer.
None of those legislators signed up to run for an office which pays, in a normal year, about $31,000 per year so they could have been in session 10 times in just 2 1/2 years. What they signed up for was to serve in four sessions over four years – about 2 1/2 months per year. This year they’ll have been at the state capitol for five months.
These people all have jobs and livelihoods away from that capitol, or at least most of them do. They’re lawyers, bankers, farmers, insurance agents, contractors, pharmacists, business executives and lots of other things, and when they get summoned to serve in a legislative session their businesses suffer at a rate the puny per diem reimbursements don’t match. For example, Rep. Joe Stagni is a chiropractor in Kenner and a sole proprietor. When he’s at the Capitol his business isn’t generating any revenue.
Edwards knows this, which is why he takes an absolutist position on Louisiana’s budget and tax code. Louisiana’s economy, which national surveys indicate is the worst in the country under his watch, doesn’t generate enough tax revenue to satisfy his demands for funding a state government costing the taxpayers well more than $30 billion per year. The budget legislators passed in the special session which ended at midnight one week ago is actually $34 billion, when you add up the total means of finance for it, and that’s not enough for Edwards. He figures that if he keeps bringing the legislators back to the Capitol again and again, and keeping them away from their businesses, homes and families, he’ll ultimately wear them down and get them to surrender, and then he can have all the money he wants.
Just using state tax dollars, Edwards wants $9.6 billion for next year. He had $9.4 billion this year, and that was the largest budget in Louisiana’s history. It was larger than when the state was loaded down with cash courtesy of the Katrina recovery, which is the base line his allies keep using to decry the “shrinking” of the state government – a fairly deplorable bit of misinformation which has been used to fool the public. Republicans in the House had argued for holding back two percent of that budget so as to lessen the effect of the “fiscal cliff” which was coming next year when revenues were to drop off from the temporary sales taxes they gave Edwards in 2016 during another one of his special sessions. That suggestion was rebuffed, as have all of their suggestions been.
This year Edwards has consistently lied about the size of that “fiscal cliff.” He said it was $1.3 billion, and those claims have been whittled down by time and scrutiny to the point where the number is really about a half-billion dollars. But that’s assuming Edwards can’t actually cut Louisiana’s budget, which is an assumption nobody should make.
The Louisiana Department of Health is where the state could easily find enough money to balance its budget without raising taxes again. In the 2013-14 fiscal year, LDH’s budget was $8.726 billion. That year Louisiana spent $7,815 per capita on health care – which was third among Southern states behind Florida ($8.076) and Kentucky ($8,004). This current year LDH’s budget is $13.568 billion, a 74 percent increase in four years – so it’s almost assured that when per capita spending numbers from Edwards’ term are compiled, Louisiana will be tops in the South in that category.
That’s driven by Medicaid expansion, which is a decision Edwards made on his own without any consultation or agreement by Louisiana’s legislators. And we know the Medicaid expansion costs $500 per month – $6,000 per year – for each enrollee it adds. We also know there are at least 83,000 Medicaid enrollees in Louisiana who have lied about their incomes by more than $20,000 when their Medicaid application is compared to state tax data. That $20,000 is in almost every case the difference between qualifying for Medicaid eligibility and not, which means those 83,000 people represent $498 million in outright fraud committed against Louisiana taxpayers.
Edwards has no interest in policing that problem. None whatsoever. He’s fought and defeated bills brought in the legislature to get it under control. He’s also fought and defeated bills which would impose a de minimus co-pay of as little as $10 for Louisiana Medicaid recipients in order to discourage wanton use of expensive emergency room services.
Edwards even vetoed a bill that would force LDH to disclose what positions it currently has funded but not filled. Funded but unfilled jobs in state government are one of the best ways for bureaucrats to squirrel away your tax dollars, as there are hundreds of positions worth as much as $60,000 per year in funding which go empty within Louisiana’s government. At LDH alone, testimony during the last special session indicated there are as many as 425 funded but unfilled positions – at $60,000 per year in salary and benefits on average, that’s $25.5 million.
And if those jobs are unfilled for more than three months, which most of them are, it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption they’re not essential.
Did Edwards offer those unfilled positions up for suspension of funding as part of a budget cut to balance the books and save the strain on the nation’s worst economy? Hell, no. But LDH did offer up $40 million in cuts last Monday, as Edwards’ budget floor leader Eric Lafleur, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, magically produced those savings at the last minute following months of stonewalling by the administration. When the House Appropriations Committee suggested scaling back LDH’s budget from $13.568 billion to $11.9 billion during the regular session, Edwards threatened to evict 37,000 senior citizens from nursing homes. There were no possible cuts which could be made. Then, when the Senate restored the cuts to LDH and paid for them by cuts elsewhere to the state budget, Edwards vetoed the budget passed in the regular session.
He signed the special session budget the legislature passed on Monday, which was a mild surprise, as most of those cuts remain. But he vetoed some 40 capital outlay projects, almost all of which were planned for the districts of his legislative critics, along with those transparency bills demanding that he give the legislature access to the details of how the money is spent.
And when the House Republicans linked those transparency reforms to any discussion of tax increases to make up the budget shortfall Edwards refuses to resolve through efficiency, Edwards ignored them in his call for another special session.
What he did put in the call was another demand for tax increases. He needs 70 votes in the House to pass those, and he can’t get them. He can’t get them because there are a good two dozen Republicans in the House who won’t vote for tax increases, period, because their constituents are consistent and loud in opposing any further taxation to fund a runaway, inefficient and completely ineffective state government. He also can’t get those 70 votes because he can’t get the Legislative Black Caucus behind the idea of sales taxes as a solution to funding state government. The LBC thinks their constituents, who they believe are more or less universally poor and downtrodden, are the ones disproportionately hit by sales taxes. This is absurd, as Louisiana exempts most basic necessities from sales tax (groceries, utilities, prescription medication, etc.), but it’s what they believe, and they demand the state’s business community shoulder the burden of a state government which is more redistributive than any in the South.
At a time when Louisiana’s worst-in-the-nation economy has actually shrunk two years running.
That lack of consensus on taxes is a good thing. It’s saving the taxpayer from an even higher tax burden than we already have. And don’t let Edwards and his pals sell you on this idea that Louisiana has a low tax burden, because it’s not true. You’ll hear from the governor and his allies that Louisiana has the nation’s fifth-lowest tax burden. That used to be true; it’s a number which came from a 2012 Tax Foundation study. In other words, when Edwards’ predecessor Bobby Jindal was holding down the state’s budget and tax burden and Edwards was in the legislature screaming about how Jindal was destroying the state, Louisiana was ranking 45th in tax burden. But in 2018, with Edwards in the governor’s mansion and his tax policies in place, Louisiana ranks 27th in tax burden, and third-highest in the South, according to WalletHub. If Jindal’s tax rates hadn’t been changed Louisiana would rank 43rd. So Edwards is lying, again, when he says we’re not taxed enough.
Still, the House Republicans are talking about trying to make a “compromise” with the governor and raise taxes – just not as much as he wants. That might have been a noble thing to do in the last special session, as they offered him $369 million in revenue from a 1/3 of a penny renewal of sales taxes we were promised would be temporary. Edwards threw it back in their faces. And now he’s threatening to empty the jails of 10,000 prisoners, plus end the state’s food stamp program, if he doesn’t get the full amount of tax increases he demands.
Unreasonable, tyrannical antics like these can’t be rewarded. And it’s past time that anybody on the Republican side stopped trying to please this man by offering him half a loaf. He’s not willing to open the books, he’s not willing to make reasonable efforts at efficiency – he’s still claiming he’s cut the state budget by $600 million when it’s more than $5 billion larger than it was when he took office – and he’s not willing to respect the wishes of the people which are pretty clearly not to pay more taxes for the same bad government.
For all of these reasons, what’s best for Louisiana is that this upcoming 10th legislative session of the John Bel Edwards era crash and burn as the 7th and 9th did, with legislators failing to achieve a two-thirds vote for his tax increases. He has failed to lead, he has failed to govern and he has failed to deliver on his promises to our people. Let him deal with the consequences of that failure, and let the legislators go home and be citizens for a while.