If you talk to conservative state lawmakers and business leaders in Louisiana, they'll tell you there's no "appetite" for fiscal reform. They all know what fiscal reform looks like, they just don't see a way to get from where Louisiana is today to where it needs to be in the future, or even next year.
Gov. John Bel Edwards blames House Republicans, who have blunted his efforts to raise taxes. In fairness, the governor also balked at reforms proposed last November by a nonpartisan task force that studied tax policy for almost a year. Instead of backing the task force's recommendations, Edwards floated an idea that struck many as coming out of left field: a commercial activity tax, or CAT. That idea went nowhere fast.
On the other hand, the GOP-led House failed to offer a reasonable alternative of its own, other than significant cuts this year and draconian cuts next year. Edwards and the Senate, which generally sides with the governor on fiscal issues, tamped down the House plan this year — but Louisiana's long-range prospects remain untenable.
All this is unfolding against the backdrop of yet another "fiscal cliff," which is an odd metaphor given Louisiana's flat terrain. The latest "cliff" is a projected $1 billion hole in state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2018 — because at least that much in "temporary" taxes, mostly sales taxes, will expire then.
Under our state's constitution lawmakers can only tinker with the tax code in regular sessions in odd-numbered years. This year, most lawmakers sat on their hands when it came to dealing with the "cliff." That means a special session is needed if we're to avoid the dreaded precipice.
At this point, whistling past the graveyard seems a more fitting metaphor. That was pretty much the conclusion of the nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) in a recent commentary.
"While there does seem to be a strong sense that we're not satisfied with where we stand now, there doesn't seem to be much articulation about where it is we want to be," CABL wrote. "It's sort of like, we want everything to be better and move up in all the rankings, but we don't really want to change anything."
What's needed is leadership, not brinkmanship.
In a move that combined a touch of both, Edwards last week wrote to House Speaker Taylor Barras, a Republican from New Iberia, asking him to appoint a bipartisan group to formulate a plan for avoiding the "cliff." Edwards even said he's willing to embrace the task force recommendations that he snubbed earlier this year.
The governor upped the ante by saying he doesn't see much point in calling a special session between now and next July 1 to deal with the "cliff" if House members aren't willing to change course.
In effect, he called House Republicans' bluff: If they want draconian cuts, he'll let them happen — but he made it clear the blood will be on their hands, not his, if hospitals and universities shut down.
It will be interesting to see how the House responds.