Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Kicking the Can-stitution

Last week in Baton Rouge, Jay Dardenne made a joke
This week, addressing state legislators’ recent failure to renew or replace an expiring “temporary” sales tax, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said, “I hope the Legislature doesn’t morph into the Professional Can-Kickers Association.”
Remind me about this when we come to the government shut-down crawfish boil on the capitol grounds.  We need to organize a game of kick-the-can on the lawn.  We're definitely still headed that way. Radicals in the House have already determined to tank the next special session much the same way they did the previous one.  Their strategy for the regular session is to pass a comically unrealistic budget, if they pass any budget at all. Here they are arguing with Dardenne over current revenue projections.
“How comfortable are you with the $302-million we’re expected to gain as a result of the federal tax cuts?” asked Rep. Blake Miguez (R-Erath). “When are you going to start using the lower number instead of insisting it’s a $994-million shortfall?”

“The official number from the Revenue Estimating Conference is $994-million,” Dardenne replied. “The amount from the federal tax changes are speculation, until the REC says differently.”

“But that’s going to help this budget tremendously,” Miguez insisted. “Where would you allocate those moneys?”

That’s your decision,” Dardenne fired back. “I’m not here today to talk about ‘hypothetically.’ That will be your decision.”
Oddly enough, the Republicans on the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee don't think budget allocation falls under the mandate of their office.  As they have explained in their Facebook videos, they've already done their job making sure there isn't enough revenue.  Now they want to force the Governor to make the politically unpopular cuts ahead of next year's elections.

Prior to the start of the special session, the Governor issued a warning in the form of a budget proposal meant to demonstrate the consequences of inaction. The so-called Doomsday budget outlined, according to the Governor, "what falling off the cliff looks like."  This would mean $26 million cut from higher education, an 80 percent cut  to the TOPS scholarship program, as well as further cuts to local Sheriffs' departments and DA's offices.  Most severely it included a $656 million cut in state funding for health care services, which, when we factor in the federal matching funds that spending draws down, amounts to an effective $2.4 billion reduction.  

We are already seeing how such a disaster might play out.  Here we have the operator of the University Medical Center threatening thousands of layoffs if the Doomsday budget is enacted. In May, 60,000 Medicaid patients will be notified that their benefits are at risk.  The draft budget was meant to spur Republican legislators into action. Instead they are bucking at the canter.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said the notices will pose a problem, but he also implied that the Edwards administration didn't have to propose the cuts and could have prevented the notices from being sent in the first place.

"This administration, like other administrations, always go after the poor and vulnerable when they are trying to scare legislators into voting for taxes," Henry said.
One reason the radicals are comfortable playing chicken with the healthcare of tens of thousands of Louisianians is they don't actually care if such things are funded.  But, more importantly, they know the political repercussions of the failure are much more likely to redound upon the Governor than on them. Which is why they're just fine pretending the shortfall is hundreds of millions of dollars smaller than it is.  It forces the Governor to make all of the unpopular cuts himself.

Meanwhile, back in the House, legislators have found an even more fashionable scapegoat than the Governor.  They have also taken to blaming the Louisiana Constitution for their own inaction.   
House Bill 500, by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, calls for a limited constitutional convention in 2020 if the idea is approved by a 27-member committee of non-legislators whose purpose is to decide by 2019 whether the convention is needed.

The convention would focus on local government; state funds, taxes and revenue; and K-12 and higher education. The convention in 1973 was more comprehensive and looked at the state's entire body of laws.

Supporters say a new convention could serve as a long-term fix for the state's budget crisis. Excluding federal aid, about $4 billion of Louisiana's annual spending is set aside by the Constitution or state laws for various programs, and about half of the remaining $6 billion is spent on health care and higher education, leaving those areas vulnerable when spending cuts are needed.

Neil brought this up during last year's budget fight. The objections we raised then are the same as they are now. A constitutional convention is a technical solution to a political problem.  Which is to say, it is an illusion.  It asks us to imagine that we can magically sidestep the political questions raised by the allocation of state resources rather than address them head-on.  Louisiana's tax code favors the rich and privileged. It relies on an insufficiently progressive income tax and the highest sales taxes in the country to fund billions of dollars in corporate giveaways and bogus "job creation incentives" that deprive local governments and school boards of essential services.  There is nothing stopping the legislators from addressing these issues apart from their own contempt for actually doing what they so smugly refer to as, "the people's business."

Instead they prefer to abdicate that responsibility in favor of the narrow interests who make their careers possible.  Imagine if those interests were allowed to re-write the rules.. at a constitutional convention, for example. The Bayou Brief's Sue Lincoln describes an exchange last week between Franklin Foil and Barry Ivey that gets to the circular logic in play. They both favor a convention but disagree about how the delegates might be selected.
But Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central), who has his own bill calling for a constitutional convention, had some concerns about the delegate selection process.

“You said anyone can run to serve as a convention delegate, right? John Q. Public needs resources to run an election campaign. If we elect the delegates, we could end up with a constitutional convention that’s bought and paid for by special interests. Big money could decide who is going to ‘own’ the convention – and then nobody is looking out for John Q. Public and his small business. How can we protect from having special interests dominate the convention?”

“By doing it this way,” Foil replied. “It’s democratic. It gives everyone an opportunity to participate, and everyone will decide who they will elect.”

Ivey was shaking his head while Foil was responding, and Foil reluctantly conceded, “Okay, maybe there will be some influence exerted…”

“Not maybe. Will,” Ivey insisted. “If special interests own 60% of the convention, you’re set up for bias.”
Ivey wants the convention to be made up, mostly, of current legislators. Foil's idea is to have it comprised of.. well, let's face it... more lobbyists than anything.  Is this a distinction without a difference at this point?  Maybe. Foil would have us believe that it is more democratic to elect a slew of unaccountable one-timers whereas Ivey's formula assigns the same representatives currently seated to do a job they are currently proving themselves to be incapable of.  Or maybe this really isn't about the budget after all.  Whatever it is about, it does offer lawmakers an opportunity to put the fiscal issue off until after the next election. Or as, Lincoln put it the other day, it gives them another chance to play their favorite game.
That delegate election would take place in the fall of 2019, during the next statewide election, and the proposed constitutional convention would then occur during the first half of 2020. So while the idea is touted as the ultimate fix for Louisiana’s budget imbalance, it’s actually kicking the Con con can down the road.

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