Let’s start with a simple fact: Teachers and school employees haven’t had a state pay raise in years. Our teacher pay is about $2,000 behind the Southern regional average, and the average salary of Louisiana teachers has actually gone down over the past two years.
Here’s what can’t happen until we get a state budget that is stable, predictable and fair: Teachers and school employees can’t get a pay raise. We can’t fix our roads and bridges, preserve our coastline, support colleges and universities, or provide other public services that we must have for a decent quality of life in Louisiana.
Lawmakers know that. As State Rep. Franklin Foil said, “Until we get the budget stable, I don’t think there is going to be a push to raise teacher salaries.”
Two years ago, the legislature named a task force to look at state finances, and recommend changes that would put us on a sound financial footing.
Their report listed “the basic principles of a good tax and fiscal system, identifies the problems with the current system in Louisiana, and recommends a package of solutions.”
The legislature then ignored the report, leaving us with a two-year ticking time bomb that we’ve come to call the “fiscal cliff.” Depending on who’s counting, we face a budget shortfall of between $800 million and $1.5 billion in the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
The task force divided the state’s budget issues into six broad areas. A simple reduction of each of those is:
Budget and spending recommendations: Don’t spend above our means. Do a better job of anticipating what will be needed to fund necessary services. Review existing funds, contracts and expenses to ensure that we are getting our money’s worth. Work to eliminate Unfunded Accrued Liabilities in state retirement systems. Make sure that “various tax credits, rebates, deductions, and exemptions to state taxes” are working as they should to benefit the state economy.
Sales tax recommendations: Reduce the state sales tax rate, but expand its base by examining exclusions and exemptions. Give local governments and voters more authority over local sales tax rates, but unify sales tax collection and administration at the state level.
Income tax recommendations: Reduce the state income tax rates and eliminate the state deduction for federal income taxes paid. Compress the state tax rates into a three-bracket structure. Close loopholes, but keep those deductions that actually help families and grow the economy.
Corporate tax recommendations: Eliminate the deduction for federal taxes paid, and reduce the corporate tax rate. Stop allowing large corporations to shift some of their profits to lower-taxed states. Find ways to maintain revenues while getting rid of the unpopular corporate franchise tax.
Ad valorem tax recommendations: Local governments depend on property taxes, which do not benefit the state treasury. But the legislature is allowed to grant property tax exemptions. Legislators can therefore grant exemptions that impede local efforts without affecting the state budget. Recommendations would change that imbalance without hurting industrial development.
Economic development recommendations: Review all economic incentives – including motion picture credits - to make sure they are actually providing jobs and economic development for the state.
Many state legislators favor some or all of these recommendations. But a 70 vote majority is needed in the House of Representatives to pass major budget changes. A solid bloc of conservative lawmakers known as the Caucus of No makes it impossible to reach a supermajority for these important bills.
The legislative task force drew a workable road map to fiscal responsibility in Louisiana. A minority of state representatives is preventing sensible leaders from putting the recommendations into effect.
It’s not too late. The practical, workable solutions proposed by the budget task force can be implemented. We need to encourage Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Senate, and the House of Representatives to do the jobs we elected them to, and fix the mess that has only gotten worse in the last decade.