WILLIAMSON: A Path Forward For Louisiana’s Budget

As the Louisiana legislature reconvenes its regular session today, the calendar left for passing legislation outside of a state budget is limited. The legislature must, according to the constitution, adjourn on June 1st. Given that condensed timeline, what is abundantly clear is that the House and Senate will require a special session at some point following the gavel striking sine die on the first of June.

But who calls that special session and when it is called are important factors in differentiating a path between a long-term economic recovery or short-sighted politics that will leave Louisiana vulnerable to years of financial downturns.

As noted above, there are two issues facing the calling of a special session, who makes the call and when that session occurs. As to who makes the call the legislature has the authority to do so and can gavel itself back into session at any point. If it does call itself back into session, the gains conservatives garnered in the prior election by adding seats in the House and Senate could be leveraged to set the agenda for that special session.  The legislative agenda could ensure items heard during that time not only focus on our near-term economic recovery but also address long-term fiscal legislation that will ensure our economic recovery is not short lived.

Important items could make the legislature’s call like: tort reform, addressing our unreliable tax code which has proven woefully inadequate during a stay at home order and debating the need for a constitutional convention which would bring long-term structural reforms that could benefit Louisiana for generations to come.

Most importantly a special session, based on the priorities of a conservative legislature, will enable that body the ability to push back on Governor Jon Bel Edward’s rosy revenue forecasts.

This highlights the second issue facing the calling of a special session: when should that session occur? A session later in the fall will allow the legislature to pass a conservatively estimated budget in the short time it has remaining in its regular session by minimally funding the government for the near term.  This will allow legislators and economists time to wait for more accurate data and understand the real revenue impacts of CV-19 over the coming months as we transition out of the stay at home order that has negatively impacted business and tax collection in Louisiana.

The legislature has at its disposal important leverage in being able to establish a healthier, leaner budget now and not be rushed by short lived politics that could seek higher than needed levels of spending based on inaccurate budget projections and the emotional toll taken by the pandemic.  It can, later, adjust or leave alone that budget in a special session in the Fall.

While all this sounds promising, there is the looming prospect Governor Edwards may make the call, which he also has the authority to do, to gavel the legislature back in. This scenario is far more disturbing for our economic wellbeing.  If the governor is allowed to set the agenda for any special session, matters like tort reform and addressing our overburdensome tax code will never be addressed.

Well, let me rephrase that; taxes may be addressed, but, in all likelihood, they will be increased to fill the emotions of this tax-and-spend Democrat’s desire to want to produce larger budgets.  Governor Edward’s favorite pastime seems to be increasing our state’s budget and paying for it with higher taxes. It has been his favorite mode of financing the past few years and what has indelibly put Louisiana in such a fiscal bind today by producing massive budgets paid for by higher taxes.

Allowing Governor Edwards to call the legislature into session cannot be accepted. The legislature is an independent body and should be able to govern itself free from Governor Edward’s manipulation.

Furthermore, if the Governor is allowed control of the special session, he would undoubtedly wish to call it immediately after the legislature gavels out and not want to wait until the fall.  Mostly because he knows that as time and data begin to trickle in his rush to overspend now may be less of a convincing argument later.  If the governor calls the session against the will of the legislature, the House of Representatives should maintain its independence and gavel out immediately.

In the coming days the Legislature has a unique opportunity to finally correct course from the past several years of higher taxes and higher budgets. It is time Louisiana recalibrates its priorities and begins to live within its means. The deficit facing Louisiana’s budget will look horrifying initially, however, it is important to remember that our budget is vastly larger than what it was even just a few years ago.  The deficit will be larger because the budgets have been greater. It would be incredible to use pre-Katrina budgeting as a baseline during the coming days ahead as our budget and its deficit are debated. The budget passed in 2005 was approximately 17.5 billion dollars.  Last year the legislature passed a 33 billion dollar budget, nearly doubling the size of our state government in just 15 years.  Lawmakers should not rush to spend so soon after the pandemic.

During the waning days left in this regular session, lawmakers should pass a leaner, more conservative budget, then wait until the fall to adjust fire as needed. That seems like the reasonable call to me.

Kirk Williamson is a Ph.D. student, Naval Officer and small business owner in New Orleans

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