That spleen venting came courtesy of Commission of Administration Jay Dardenne, who took umbrage at the Revenue Estimating Conference’s unwillingness to approve of revenue estimates higher than the current standards from April. Although economists from his office and the Legislature said they expected higher collections for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, with three members of the panel (including Dardenne) willing to raise the official estimates by $170 million and $103 million, respectively, because the House of Representatives’ designee Republican state Rep. Cameron Henry objected, that didn’t go through.
Henry noted that waiting longer would improve forecast accuracy. History backs him up. A recent study of REC forecasting showed a typical error of 1.7 percent (excluding 2006-07 affected by the hurricane disasters of 2005), which translates over time into an $83.3 million error. About four-fifths of the time the error came on the low range, but errors have come a fifth of the time in overestimating – and four times in the past decade – and in the past decade have averaged an overestimation of about $100 million.
He also noted that GOP state Treas. John Schroder will not release around $21 million in unclaimed property funds that in the past routinely have been swept into government coffers. The budget, signed by Edwards in June, contained that even though Schroder had stated publicly that he would not release these funds – with good reason as the law is on his side.
Last year, Henry and the ultimate authority for the House on the REC, its Republican Speaker Taylor Barras, delayed recognition, citing uncertainty with projections and specifically dealing with oil pricing. Events continue to prove them correct: the price in the April forecast for it has been higher for all but ten days of this fiscal year, with many days several dollars below.
But doing this sent Edwards and Dardenne into apoplexy. They claimed all sorts of programs would go without funding as budgeted for FY 2019 – but when the dust settled, nothing lacked money. It got so bad Dardenne lied through his teeth to lawmakers about the controversy, as affirmed by an attorney general’s opinion.
So, it’s no surprise Dardenne launched into more histrionics on the most recent occasion. Ignorantly, he said the veto was “to thumb our nose at the Constitution.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite: the statute that created the REC in 1989 enshrined by the voters in 1990 through constitutional amendment explicitly built in the unanimity requirement to prevent politicization of the budgeting process that produced unrealistically high estimates. It is precisely the veto power given to different parts of government – and even an outsider to it, in the form of an economist affiliated with a university – that puts the brakes on unwise inflation of the estimate in order to allow for more spending.
Keep in mind that the four panelists don’t have to follow numbers derived by the two sets of economists. Nor are their estimates sacrosanct and immune to adjustment by the judgment of elected officials; if the people had desired an automated response to the projections, they would have amended the Constitution without leaving room for their input of their representatives and the outside expert.
Dardenne didn’t stop making a fool of himself. He also decried the Henry veto as producing “several months of meaningless and fruitless debate driven solely by the desire to fight with the governor.” No, it’s the people’s lower house exercising fiscal prudence that happens to conflict with the tax-and-spend agenda of Dardenne’s boss. And if current spending on reinstituting a ferry service and starting payments on the land-based casino contract, matters which initially were delayed by the veto, depended on counting chickens before they hatched, this most accurately reflects budgeting incompetence on Dardenne’s part. (Within hours after the meeting, a deal happened to put the ferry into service.)
Edwards and Dardenne will have to face the fact that they cannot dictate their political preferences in contravention of the Constitution. The voters created a process by which elected officials from both branches of government must affirm revenue numbers. If Dardenne doesn’t like that, he should work towards changing public opinion on that matter and get an amendment reflecting that on the ballot rather than engage in mindless and misinformed diatribes.