OUR VIEW: Legislature plays budget shall game

With the traditional parting Latin phrase marking their adjournments “sine die” – meaning at some future, unassigned date – both houses of the Louisiana legislature completed their work last week, bringing the 2015 regular session to a distressing but somewhat effective close.

Lawmakers – including the Lafourche and Terrebonne delegation – can boast of some laudable accomplishments. Among these are passage of laws, largely the products of work done by Rep. Dee Richard, no party, of Lafourche. These have turned back the page on what had been a disgraceful usurping of the public’s right to view how its government operates, by making communications between the governor and department heads once again subject to Louisiana’s open records law.

Another accomplishment – far from controversial and virtually unopposed – was an unusual move that will benefit the state’s seafood industry, which plays a big role in local commerce. The state will now enforce federal requirements that skimmer boats – generally smaller shrimp boats operating within the federally-recognized three mile limit – either carry turtle excluder devices in their nets or submit to mandatory short tow times when trawls are in the water.

Supported by the industry, the law mandating this may result in the state’s shrimp being removed from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s blacklist, which has cost fishermen and processors a place on the shelves in important niche markets.

The tax on cigarettes was raised. The move is not popular among smokers who say they are already battered, and unpopular, easy targets. Nonetheless, at a time of fiscal crisis difficult measures are needed, and with all respect to our friends who still puff away, this particular solution was a no-brainer which made fiscal sense.

Not all of the legislature’s accomplishments this year, however, can be looked on with pride.

Incorporation of the SAVE Amendment into Louisiana’s spending bill marked one of the lowest points ever seen – perhaps since Reconstruction – in how the state manages its affairs.

The measure requires college students to pay a fee of about $1,500 each, raising a total of $350 million in revenue, in theory but not in practice.

An offset tax credit engineered into the bill actually means students don’t have to pay anything. The fee does not in reality put another cent into the state’s coffers, nor does it help higher education, other than ensure passage of a budget that otherwise buffered it from further eviscerating cuts.

What the structure did, however, was create a budget that technically did not raise taxes, at least not according to the standards of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax organization. Jindal signed a pledge, in accordance with that organization’s tenets, not to raise taxes. By doing so he placed political expediency above the honor of the state of Louisiana, and above the needs of its people.

Legislators have stated that they held their noses while casting their votes of “yea” for the measure. The distaste was due to their understanding that without including SAVE the governor would have to veto the budget altogether, if he was to keep his out-of-state pledge. That could have caused trouble for Louisiana, and either way trouble for Jindal’s presumed quest for the presidency.

In the long run passage of SAVE was an unfortunate necessity, but only because legislators, as they are wont to do, had not earlier stood up to a power-hungry governor.

While legislators are patting themselves on the back for passing a budget – the task they were already charged with – they shouldn’t pat too hard.

Those who represent us now or plan to in the future need to start work right now, to find lasting solutions to Louisiana’s budget woes, that will allow them to function without regard to demagoguery and exercise of misplaced will.

The fact that SAVE had to become an issue at all needs to be looked at closely by voters and the people they elect, if Louisiana is to be saved from itself.