This year's legislative session has been unusually busy for an election year. Generally, lawmakers and governors are loath to tackle controversial matters right before they have to seek re-election, but the state's $1.6 billion revenue drop in the coming fiscal year (which begins July 1) has forced them to confront some ugly truths. The ugliest of those is the undeniable fact that most if not all of the painful options Gov. Bobby Jindal and state legislators now face could have been avoided had they made more responsible decisions over the past few years. Instead, they took the politically expedient route time and again. Now the fiscal chickens have come home to roost. Almost as ugly is the fact that, once again, too many of our political leaders are grandstanding and posturing when they should be acting responsibly.
This week, several fiscal issues will come to a head. They include a possible override of Jindal's expected veto of a 4-cent cigarette tax renewal, a push by some lawmakers to repeal or phase out the state income tax, and the final push to adopt the 2011-12 state operating budget.
First up will be the tobacco tax extension. On this one, the governor could not be more wrong — or more intellectually dishonest. He has cast the renewal of a 4-cent cigarette tax as a tax increase — solely to maintain his anti-tax bona fides in the run-up to his national ambitions. Calling a modest tobacco tax extension an "increase" is more than a stretch. It is a lie. The voters see right through this one, as nearly three-fourths of them support cigarette taxes. Clearly, the people recognize what the American Cancer Society and others have long preached: that tobacco use causes major (and expensive) public health problems; that lowering cigarette taxes only makes it easier for kids to start smoking; and that Louisiana's cigarette tax is among the lowest in the country. Jindal should relent on his veto threat. If he does not, lawmakers should override him — and voters should remember Jindal's showboating at election time.
Next up are several bills to repeal or phase out the state income tax. This one is the fault of several lawmakers, although Jindal has sheepishly hidden on this issue when he should be out front against it. State Sen. Rob Marionneaux's bill to phase out the income tax is nothing more than an election-year hoax. Senators wisely converted it into a harmless "study resolution" before passing it on to the House. This being an election year, there's always the possibility that the House will return the bill to its original, irresponsible form. That would be a mistake. We urge lawmakers to consign this idea to the trash heap. At the same time, it would be nice to see the governor showing some backbone (for a change) by stepping out against this reckless notion.
On another fiscal front, Jindal has once again reneged on his campaign promise not to use one-time revenues to pay for recurring state expenses. Fortunately, the House stood tall on this issue by adopting the so-called Geymann Rule, named for Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles. The new rule requires a two-thirds vote of the House to spend one-time money on recurring operations if such spending exceeds the projected growth in state revenue. Under the Geymann Rule, Jindal would need a super-majority in the House to pass his proposed budget, which won't happen. The Geymann Rule is a step in the right direction. We urge House members to stick with it.
Closely related to the Geymann Rule is Jindal's plan to sell off three state prisons — and then pay a private company to manage those same prisons. That's the dumbest idea of the year. Do the math. This idea will only drive future operating costs higher. What will the governor sell then, the Superdome? Tiger Stadium? State parks? Pretty soon Louisiana will run out of things to sell. Fortunately, the House Appropriations Committee defeated this proposal. We hope it's dead for the session — and for good.
The session must end by next Thursday, June 23. Time is short, but lawmakers and Jindal can still make some good decisions in the face of many ugly truths.