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A Mixed Bag from PAR

PARlogoThe Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, or simply PAR to those in the know, released a curious report at the end of January called “A Plan to Control State Spending.” I call it curious because much of the news around the budget crisis the report refers to as “the worst Louisiana has seen since the 1980s oil bust” has focused mostly on revenue generation and finding new ways to cut from a budget that has already been sliced to death. There’s been little or no talk of our state overspending on much of anything since budget cuts started in 2008.

The first section of the report is titled “Where we are and how we got here,” but the second paragraph immediately jumps to a call for “cost containments.” 

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana recommends that the governor and the Legislature submit strong and specific assurances for budget cuts, controls and cost containments prior to approving tax increases. If additional revenues are to be extracted from business and individuals, then those taxpayers have a right to know what kind of government spending environment state leaders intend to promote.

I was surprised by such a strong statement, again, given the dearth of talk around wasteful or excessive state government spending. Founded in 1950, PAR has long had a reputation for fairness and nonpartisanship. Like other Baton Rouge policy organizations, the organization’s leader is a former career journalist. Robert Travis Scott was hired from the Times-Picayune after the retirement of long-tenured leader Jim Brandt.

The report’s first section rightfully ends with a call for legislators and the governor to take the long view as they tackle the fiscal challenges: “Long-term tax reform and budget stability should be key considerations.” It then suggests that the governor do two things initially: 1.) provide a “fiscal framework” that lays out a longer-term vision for sustainability; and 2.) make a series of pledges “for cutting, controlling, and containing expenditures” and calling on legislators to do the same.

Why would a nonpartisan organization suggest to elected officials that they make pledges? A pledge, after all, is a political tool – a signal that an official is making a promise for which voters may later hold her accountable. Louisiana has a less-than-positive recent history with its leaders making pledges. So it is indeed odd that a research organization would, in a budget recommendation report, suggest that politicians be more political.

Other interesting and/or notable points:

  • “All statutory funds should be sunset and renewed only after legislative scrutiny.” I happen to agree that any dedication of state revenues, whether direct spending or tax exemptions or credits, should be periodically reviewed to ensure the expenditure’s original purpose is being served.
  • “But this is the time to establish a sustainable budget and meet the state’s essential purposes, not to expand programs and spending obligations.” This seems like a conservative reaction without a tangible problem, and there’s no indication as to what specific possibilities this refers. I have not heard of any officials suggesting that we expand state government broadly in terms of programs or spending. PAR’s board of directors is made up almost entirely of business and other private-sector leaders, so one could reasonably assume that language like this is a result of the board’s conservative bent.
  • State employee pay – “In future years, consider cost-of-living adjustments instead of more expensive merit pay increases to balance state budget and employee interests.” I agree with this suggestion, and it could prevent irresponsible actions like the dramatic merit raises granted during the lame duck period.
  • Criminal justice reform – “Promote long-term savings and a better corrections system through sentencing reforms that would reduce the prison population while maintaining public safety.” Common sense measures like keeping 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile system and reducing penalties for drug possession are reforms already under consideration in Louisiana.
  • Higher education – “Support performance measures that will reduce higher education’s incentives to base financing on enrollment.” Performance-based funding has long been a political third rail for those who advocate for the stated role of HBCUs as crucial access points for minority students. According to the argument, institutions that serve higher than average numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot reasonably be expected to meet the same academic performance and completion metrics as other state institutions. However, tying state funding to enrollment could theoretically lead (and likely does lead, in some cases) to an institution maximizing the number of warm bodies on campus in any given semester rather than focusing on the academic success and on-time graduation of its students.
  • Public education – “Pledge to support a reduction or no increase for the state’s MFP expense.” Let’s try something: substitute the word “investment” in place of “expense” in this statement. Now does it make sense? I would be curious to better understand any argument in favor of less funding for our public schools.
  • Private school subsidies – “Eliminate the state income tax deduction for private school tuition. Private schools enjoy about $61.6 million in direct state subsidies and indirect tax breaks, not including the vouchers program and school bus support. The tuition deduction costs the state $21.5 million, is not a top state priority and makes for bad tax policy.” This would be another common-sense step in the right direction.

Here’s the link to the full report.

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