By Kenneth Cooper
The Louisiana state budget is an abstraction, a series of dollar signs and digits existing on a computer screen or piece of paper. Taken as a whole, it’s unfathomable in scope and consolidated into a figure that’s innumerable. Try imagining $25 billion, the physical amount, not the number. The first thing that probably comes to mind is an endless stack of money, an image having little to do with reality. That’s how our governors and state legislators have come to think about it.
“A million here, a million there,” so said Lil Wayne in A Milli, a song that will probably go down as one of his greatest hits. It’s a verse about how frivolous money can become once you’ve amassed enough of it. Every year we citizens are legally obligated to help our state government amass a fortune, about $8 billion in tax revenue. In return, they’ve amassed a disregard for how they spend that money.
Looking through the state budget, one of the first things you’ll notice, besides its length, is that every commission or department has at least a multi-million or multi-billion dollar budget. How the costs have gotten to be that expensive and continue to do so is not even a question. It’s a given. If you were to ask the governor what the State Racing Commission spends $12 million on, he’d probably have to get back to you. Ask why it costs $2 billion to have a Department of Higher Education, and you most likely would never get an answer.
Instead, the clearest look citizens get to a detailed breakdown of the budget comes every spring when legislators and governors subject them to an annual series of hostage negotiations. Simply asking citizens for more money has proven to be ineffective, so the alternative scenario usually plays out like this: some state official, usually the governor, will appear on TV and basically say, give me a certain amount of money or I’ll close down a hospital. When a hospital is not being held hostage, it’s your grandmother’s subsidy for medicine, your child’s after-school program, or a teacher’s job at a university.
Other times, depending on your tax bracket, you’ll be asked to help out with the negotiations. That scenario usually plays out like this: some state official, usually the governor, will appear on TV and say, help me extract a large amount of money from the pockets of these rich people or I’ll shut down the TOPS program.
In both scenarios, the focus is shifted away from the money being spent and onto other things like class warfare or preventing some dire situation.
This year’s hostage negotiations produced an agreement for citizens to hand over more than a billion dollars via two years’ worth of higher sales taxes. The three-week special session produced a few hundred million more.
Future negotiations are already in the making. There’s talk of a can being kicked down a dead-ended road and a fiscal cliff we’re all set to fall off. One of the solutions so far seems to be collecting an extra $900 million by eliminating a federal tax deduction. For their part, the Republican Party has been questioning the size, cost, and scope of government, but they have the terrible habit of doing so mainly on the backs of poor people.
So that leaves citizens grasping at an abstraction, one slowly being revealed each year through piecemealed emergencies. Meanwhile, legislators kick cans while the cost of government keeps rising. Why worry about a million here or a million there when you can always get a million more from businesses and citizens?
By Kenneth Cooper