Session has begun and the tough decisions are upon us. As the Governor has said, now is the time to be courageous. Any further delay in dealing with our ongoing instability will result in future special sessions. This is unnecessary.
By now you already know that we are surviving under the burden of a recurring and debilitating budget deficit. Last year alone, we began with a $1.9 billion shortfall and were forced to cut an additional $617 million to cover continuing costs. This is not a new reality-we have faced 15 similar mid-year budget cuts in the last nine years. Any reasonable person would agree this is not sustainable.
So, where do we begin? Well, it can either be really complex or it can be really simple. We can hide behind the smoke and mirrors of partisan politics and spinning numbers, or we can do the work and fix the problem.
We need to recognize the things that make us strong and competitive and then we have to invest in them. Sure, some say we need to run the government like a business. But the government isn’t in the business of business, it’s in the business of services. Infrastructure doesn’t build itself and private citizens aren’t in the habit of voluntarily footing the bill. This is the job of the government: to create a secure and predictable environment that fosters growth and a thriving population. Temporary fixes and annual changes to tax policy undermine our efforts to grow the economy.
So, we begin with the money. While we should always strive to be more efficient with state spending, our’s is not a problem of spending, but of revenue. The State General Fund-the part of the budget that is made up of revenue generated from state dollars and funds priorities like education and health and hospitals- is $138 Million less than what it was in 2008. This means that in the last 9 years, we have spent less state taxpayer dollars and have failed to even maintain the level of services we enjoyed nearly a decade ago. We haven’t invested in growth and we certainly haven’t accounted for inflation or for other growing costs like healthcare and retirement benefits for state employees. This isn’t just stagnate-it’s moving backwards.
We are at a standstill because we don’t have enough revenue coming in and our tax code is so overly complicated that we rank number 41 out of 50 by the Tax Foundation’s 2017 State Business Tax Climate Index. This isn’t just bad for business, it’s bad for Louisiana citizens. Not only will new industries continue to skip over Louisiana as a place to create new jobs, but we are missing out on revenues due to a convoluted tax code filled with loopholes and unnecessary deductions. We have what we need: expert recommendations by the bipartisan Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy. We also know that what we’ve been doing isn’t working-number 41 is a long way from the top. So, let’s keep it simple: simplify and reduce the income tax rates and get rid of federal deductibility of taxes paid, which is only allowed by two other states in the country. Let’s modernize our tax code, improve our business climate, and invest in our state and our people.
Then, once we create a better business environment and well-structured revenues, let’s start thinking seriously about spending our money wisely and streamlining unnecessary expenditures. Let’s reform our criminal justice system and refocus the $700 million we spend annually on prison beds and bars and shift the investment to mental health support, substance abuse rehabilitation and work training programs. Let’s make sure that when people are released back into our communities, they are no longer a threat to us and our families. Instead, they will be an asset to their families, contributing members of society and valuable participants in the workforce. Again, we have what we need: bipartisan recommendations from my Task Force on Criminal Justice Reinvestment. And again, we know that what we’ve been doing isn’t working: being number 1 in incarceration hasn’t made us number 1 in safety, but states that have implemented these types of reform have reduced prison beds over time and crime rates have fallen dramatically.
Investing our money more efficiently and providing a stable tax code will allow us to develop a skilled workforce and high quality of life, which will create a sustainable future for businesses here in Louisiana. We must invest in higher education, restore TOPS and invest in our colleges and universities to make sure that everyone in Louisiana has the opportunity to prepare for the knowledge-based economy of the future. We can create an educated and skilled workforce to fill the jobs created by the new industries attracted by our simplified tax code. Higher education has been cut by $700 million in the last decade and they’re looking at another $17 million in cuts under the current proposed budget. How can we expect to thrive when we keep cutting the things that make us most competitive? Wouldn’t you rather be number 1 in higher education outcomes than in incarceration rates?
Keep it simple.
Need jobs? Fix the tax code.
Need to spend wisely? Reform the criminal justice system.
Need a skilled workforce? Invest in higher education.
We have been told since we were children that we have to invest in the future. Now is the time to make it happen. Now is the time to be courageous, to keep it simple.