SADOW: The Advocate’s Bias Shows Through In Its Legislative Coverage

The incremental transformation of Louisiana’s political culture apparently has prompted some nose-growing at the Baton Rouge Advocate.

So far, 2020 has seen the first steps towards reversing nearly a century of acquiescence to oversized government. There have been others: a brief flare snuffed out quickly when Democrat-then-Republican former Gov. Buddy Roemer first came into office, then several years later under GOP former Gov. Mike Foster reversal occurred on a few specific issues such as education, and only a few years ago Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal mounted the most serious effort on a broad front, but one left incomplete.

But this time differs in that conservatives now hold every minor statewide office and command majorities in the Legislature, Public Service Commission, and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The last redoubt of the old order is the Governor’s Mansion, and it has seen its power wane to the point that it has lost control of the policy-making agenda that reduces it to revanchist defensive displays.

And the empire of active and sympathizing agents has mobilized in this defense, one such example appearing last weekend in the Advocate. A story by Tyler Bridges ostensibly about the clash of civilizations featuring the Republican-led Legislature and Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards pushes the bunker mentality while trotting out half-truths (at best) to support it.

Essentially, Bridges forwards the thesis that conservatives have taken the collapse in state revenues after Edwards issued a series of proclamations closing large swaths of the state’s economy as an opportunity to implement stricter measures to control expenditures. It’s an overwrought argument – most of the measures the Legislature has advanced in this regard long have been on conservatives’ agenda and were filed as legislation for this session long before the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic – but the crisis has writ large the compelling argument behind these bills, which would prompt more of an ant rather than grasshopper attitude in budgeting.

So, Bridges used his space to try to discredit that. There are little things, such as presenting comments made by his fellow New Orleans Times-Picayune alumnus Jan Moller, head of the far left Louisiana Budget Project, without informing readers of its ideological leanings, while when introducing comments by Daniel Erspamer of the Pelican Institute he gave qualifying information for it as a “group that favors lower taxes and less spending.” The implication: Moller’s comments are privileged since these are indicated as coming from a neutral source, while Erspamer’s are biased.

Sly tactics aside, Bridges tries more blunt assaults, and here the Pinocchios begin to pile up. Let’s start with the claim that “Four measures approved … would try to restrain state spending – which would inevitably mean less money for teacher pay, police protection, health care for the poor and housing state inmates.

No, it’s not “inevitably” at all. What if instead the Legislature and Edwards cut out the state Earned Income Tax Credit giveaway, or money paid people to make movies, or wasteful Medicaid expansion, or put all Medicaid waiver program participants into managed care? These measures alone would wipe out most of a projected $1 billion-plus fiscal year 2021 deficit.

But Edwards doesn’t favor any of those sensible solutions, so Bridges must echo the party line. So, it’s scare tactics all around.

Then there’s “During … Jindal’s second term, [Jindal Administration officials and allies] repeatedly over-estimated how much money the government would collect,” which supposedly shows bad faith in the effort of conservatives to put the brakes on government spending.

Except that Bridges made an entirely false assertion. Disregarding that the policy-makers in question relied upon two economists and their staffs to come up with forecasts and didn’t stray from those in the Jindal era, reviewing the budgets over which Jindal and those two Legislatures had under their control – fiscal years 2009-16 – the average error of the last Revenue Estimating Conference estimates for each year (the last one in each cycle incorporating the most data) was about -0.1 percent, or nearly dead on, with the worst of the bunch a 2.8 percent overshoot in his final (half) year. Altogether, these straddled the line: four years overshot, four year undershot.

In fact, going back through the Democrat former Gov. Kathleen Blanco Administration, the Jindal era proved the most accurate in revenue estimation. That’s hardly “repeatedly over-estimated.”

He also parrots at face the assertion made by Edwards’ Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne – who in past matters regarding REC estimates hasn’t always told the truth – that “Edwards and the Legislature not only eliminated the Jindal-era deficits – principally by increasing the state sales tax and also by cutting government spending – but also produced budget surpluses during the past two years.” This appears to be an attempt to delegitimize the measures to control spending as the GOP majority now seeks.

In reality, deficit reduction and “surplus” production occurred mainly because of Republican-led tax cuts at the federal level, which not only spurred the economy but gave Louisiana a bonus in that reduced federal income taxes lowered the offset on Louisiana income taxes, thereby increasing these collected. In all likelihood, the Edwards-backed tax increases raised more revenue than they cost in choking the economy, but precisely because these transferred wealth from taxpayers to dubious, wasteful spending choices like Medicaid expansion there wasn’t much positive fiscal impact.

And what cuts were there in state spending? That increased from $17.9 billion in state dollars in FY2017 to by the end of 2019 $20.7 billion, a rise of 15.7 percent while inflation over that period rose just 6.8 percent. Lumping in federal dollars, it went from $27.2 billion to $35.2 billion, a 29.4 percent increase.

Currently, the Advocate engages in a cringeworthy campaign to have readers donate money to it. Slipshod work like that Bridges produced for this article won’t exactly encourage donations.

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