Welcome back aboard, Shreveport-Bossier, to Sounding Off! This is a completely unscientific and shallow measurement of our area’s political and social flotsam and jetsam, and the aggregate effect it has on our quality of life. Is it over? Can we, if only for a moment, exhale and allow ourselves a moment of quiet? And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face? YES! 2015 is GONE! Adios, Felicia! At the end of what felt to be one of the strangest, most disconcerting, and most unsatisfying years, 2016’s arrival at least lets us all imagine that there, out on the far horizon, is a point at which the world will come to its senses, calm down, think about what it’s doing, and get back to not ruining everything it touches. That’s the spirit of the New Year! We thought briefly about writing some sort of 2015 retrospective piece, rehashing the stories and opinions that struck the loudest chords in the last 12 months. Turns out, we just don’t care enough to live all that foolishness over again. So it is with a keen and clear eye to the future that Sounding Off! returns for 2016.
Last Mark: 14 Feet
So, our new governor takes office in about a week. Can we think of a worse assignment in American politics at the moment? With a projected current year budget hole of something around $700 Million, and a near $2 Billion chasm for FY’17, John Bel Edwards is tasked to lead Louisiana in a Sisyphean exercise that offers no glory or gratitude. So begins what we will term “The Great Unfuckening.” Reconstruct the state budget filled with gimmicky patchwork, one-time quick fixes, and underfunded liabilities for years outward; all while working with a conservative legislature that is as pulled into the undertow of national election rhetoric as ever? Sure. Good luck with that. Oil will still be $30-something a barrel. The massive lobbyist horde will swarm Baton Rouge to make sure their particular pet tax credit doesn’t fall under the axe. And education and health care are still just about the the only areas that we are Constitutionally allowed to look for “savings.”
The one bright spot in the legislature seems to be the growing shared understanding on both sides of the political aisle that raising revenue is imperative. Even Republicans realize that someone, somewhere, is going to have to endure a tax increase, a rollback in tax credits, or some combination of the two if we are ever going to get out of this hole. Well, that’s a relief. The previous governor robbed Peter to pay Paul, then set Paul up to get jumped by the Sons of Thunder, who in turn got their pockets run by a murder of campaign consultants, who then paid hefty tribute to Grover Norquist. Jindal made us think he was Keyser Soze. Turns out he was just Verbal all along. Either way, the rest of us are Chazz Palminteri, running out into a crowded street, wondering where he went and what the hell just happened…
On this past Monday afternoon at the Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Shreveport, about 100 business leaders, elected officials, and interested citizens gathered to hear our fiscal situation laid bare, absent political doublespeak with just enough arcana to keep things interesting. Instead, what we got was a disappointing pitch presentation by Rep. Julie Stokes of Jefferson Parish for a flat tax proposal. The event was sponsored by the local and state Committees of 100 and the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based organization subject to same that shortfalls that all Washington based organizations are. Rep. Stokes, while clearly talented and knowledgeable, struck me as unbecomingly opportunistic in tone. Now is NOT the moment to push for massive structural changes in how Louisianian’s are taxed for a few reasons:
1. The current and next-year budget deficits will not be resolved without the full and undivided attention of all elected officials, from the Governor down to local tax assessors. Even if this is just a laying of the ground work for a future attempt at passing a flat tax, we think it’s prudent to concentrate on the task at hand, if only to combat the cynicism and distrust most of us feel toward Baton Rouge. We just got rid of a Governor who used us as a sandbox to game out policy strategy for his national ascendency. It VERY didn’t work.
2. Rep. Stokes was adamant about finding a revenue solution that was non-redistributive. Never mind that fact that levying taxes by any method is a redistribution. Flat tax schemes are always regressive. Her argument rests on the suppositions that many of the personal and corporate tax credits will be rolled back, that the Constitution of the State of Louisiana can be changed or amended to allow for the plan’s adoption (much of our tax policy is actually hard-coded into the Constitution, per Napoleonic law or something…), and we can all agree on what will be considered income to be taxed. A 0% rate on the first $25,000 in income, and a 4% rate beyond, sounds like a great deal on face, but it shifts the burden away from high earners and the wealthy, and onto the middle and working classes, thus redistributing wealth UPWARD. 4% of $28,000 is not the same as 4% of $2.8 Million, no matter how forcefully one rails against “redistribution” and “class warfare.” I’m no economist or CPA, but this old chestnut has just about worn out whatever dubious usefulness it started with.
No, getting out of this budget mess will require yeoman’s work from everyone. We appreciate new ideas as much as any. A flat tax is not the answer. Nonetheless, you can find more specifics about Rep. Stokes’ and the Tax Foundation proposals here and here.
FORECAST: 14 Feet. (No change) Nail everything down. Choppy seas are ahead. The Great Unfuckening will be no pleasure cruise. We can measure depth again after the inauguration and the run up to the February special session in Baton Rouge.