"They didn't just steal taxpayers' money, they stole young people's futures. This is the ultimate immorality."
— James Carville
A common refrain among some lawmakers in Baton Rouge these days is that we should "look forward" and stop blaming former Gov. Bobby Jindal for Louisiana's unprecedented fiscal crisis. If those lawmakers were to read the latest annual report of the legislative auditor, they'd change their tune.
According to the auditor, the Jindal Administration failed to timely file the vast majority of statutorily required reports on more than $1 billion a year in tax incentive giveaways for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.
"We found that three of the six agencies that administer tax incentives submitted reports as of March 23, 2015," the auditor's report states. "As a result, the Legislature only received information on five of the 79 tax incentives administered by these agencies.
"In addition, of the 79 tax incentive reports agencies were required to submit to the Legislature by March 1, 2014, 70 [89 percent] either were not submitted or did not comply with all of the reporting requirements. According to the Department of Revenue's Tax Exemption Budgets, the revenue loss from tax incentives claimed in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 for which agencies provided no information or did not comply with reporting requirements totaled approximately $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively."
You read that correctly: $1.1 billion for fiscal year 2013 and $1.3 billion for fiscal year 2014.
There's our budget deficit right there, folks.
Jindal didn't create this mess alone, however. Democratic as well as Republican legislators aided and abetted his malfeasance.
To be clear, those "tax incentives" are actually expenditures. If lawmakers opt to eliminate any of them, it won't be a tax increase, it will be a reduction in spending. In that respect, we can all agree that Louisiana indeed has "a spending problem." We're spending way too much on corporate giveaways.
The auditor's report summarizes 36 audits conducted in 2015 and identifies some $1.8 billion in questionable expenditures — the vast majority of them corporate tax incentives. That should outrage every Louisiana taxpayer.
What's even more outrageous is seeing some lawmakers now browbeat university presidents who dare to speak the truth about the repercussions of the current fiscal crisis. Some lawmakers even have the gall to blame universities for their predicament. That's like telling crime victims they had it coming.
James Carville, one of Louisiana's most passionate advocates for higher education, summed up the situation perfectly: "They didn't just steal taxpayers' money, they stole young people's futures. This is the ultimate immorality. Somebody should wrap the state Capitol in crime scene tape. It's that bad."
When you consider that more than $1 billion a year has gone to tax incentive programs for which there has been little or no accounting — at the same time that lawmakers and Jindal cut higher education by almost $1 billion — Carville's logic is unassailable.
To be fair, it's possible that those errant reports would show that the tax incentives were all administered properly and achieved the desired result of job creation. Possible, but not likely. Louisiana has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, which proves that Jindal's trickle-down policies didn't work.
More likely, the real "paperwork" behind Team Jindal's corporate handouts is the former governor's campaign finance reports. If history is any guide, there's likely to be a high correlation between the former governor's campaign finance reports and a list of companies that received tax incentives. At a minimum, Jindal committed malfeasance by consistently telling lawmakers and the public that his budgets for the past seven years were "balanced." They were not.
The victims of Jindal's fiscal Ponzi scheme aren't just Louisiana taxpayers, they're our children and grandchildren who've been robbed of their futures by gutting public colleges and universities.
Higher-ed officials painted a stark picture of the crime scene last week:
• Under Jindal, Louisiana led the nation in higher education disinvestment, cutting state support to public colleges and universities by 44 percent.
• Increases in tuition have not kept pace with those cuts.
• Sixty-three cents of every dollar spent on higher education in Louisiana goes back to the state in the form of mandated costs (audit fees, retirement costs, etc.). At least one university, Nicholls State, gives back more than it gets. The University of New Orleans gives back 76 cents on every state dollar received.
• If lawmakers fail to stem the bleeding, Louisiana's public universities risk loss of accreditation, mass layoffs — and yes, possibly not being able to field NCAA sports teams. That's reality, not a scare tactic.
College students are planning a rally at the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 24, to call attention to the crisis. They're calling it "Bring HEAT" (Higher Education All Together).
They ought to consider calling it "CSI: Baton Rouge" — and heed Carville's suggestion of wrapping the Capitol in crime scene tape.