27 March 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Prefiled bills -- Week of Mar. 25, 2005

THE GOOD: A few good ones were filed this week, notably Rep. Billy Montgomery's HB 79 which follows the leads of others in restoring federal tax deductions to state income tax, Sen. Jay Dardenne's SB 23 which phases out then repeals the gift tax, and Sen. Tom Schedler's SB 25 which removes the income cap on those 65 or older eligible to freeze their homestead values for the purposes of taxation. Yet the best is lead author Rep. Peppi Bruneau's HB 80 which would shift Louisiana state elections from their current position during the third year of a presidential term to having them co-terminous with presidential elections. Only Louisiana and Mississippi currently follow this election calendar.

Arguments can be made both ways about whether to have state elections simultaneously with federal elections, the advantage being better turnout in state elections and a more comprehensive consideration of politics at all levels of governance (or, another way of putting this, state office candidates don't get their performances evaluated upon national officials or party activities). The disadvantage is state elections' importance could get reduced in the minds of many voters by "competing" with federal elections.

Ordinarily, a certain degree of independence might be a desirable thing. But since the state ranks so lowly in so many ways, maybe's it's time we did something different with elections timing. Maybe there ought to be a greater linkage in voters' minds; maybe it would produce different election results that put better people into office being that the ones there now (at least enough of them) aren't getting the job done.

(Note that there would be partisan implications -- with Louisiana now a solidly Republican state for federal offices, any linkage of state to federal elections would create a disproportionate surge of trickle-down support for Republicans. With the GOP holding barely one-third of the seats in both chambers, in its present form this constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature is unlikely to pass unless black Democrats, who are only slighly less likely to be win under this regime given the compositions and voting behaviors in their districts, see some benefit in connected elections. Or ....)

THE BAD: The same bill. This is because it lengthens present terms of state officials by a year, to catch onto the 2008 election cycle.

When the previous constitution was amended to allow Gov. John McKeithen to serve a second consecutive term, part of the price was to shortern his term (and everybody else's), with the state's elections originally having been on the presidential election cycle. If now terms are to be lenghtened back to this schedule, a price also should be exacted.

Perhaps part of the rationale for lengthening is to get support for this change, but in exchange for that extra year, this amendment should be amended to prohibit any legislator from serving three consecutive full terms counting service in either chamber. The well-intentioned amendment taking effect in 1995 allows for the three-term limit applying only to service in one chamber, so many term-limited members in 2007 will try to run for seats in the other chamber. That violates the spirit of the concept, that service is such that it provides insufficient incentives for legislators to be fully cognizant of their roles as the people's representatives if they stay too long.

(Of course, to make this change my violate the constitutional provision that amendments be limited to a single object, so another separate amendment may have to be introduced which then may defeat the purpose if this one were not approved while the original was. In this instance, the original then would have to be defeated.)

THE UGLY: Actually, not only are these ugly, they're bad, too. Sen. Don Hines has two, almost identical bills SB 28 and SB 29 (the former a constitutional amendment, the latter the enabling legislation thereof) which not only are ugly because they seek to create a new dedication in a state budget already over-dedicated, but which are bad because they raid the Budget Stabilization Fund in the process.

Simply, the fund collects mineral revenues in excess of $750 million in a year and parks them there as a "rainy-day" fund. Procedures to release the money back for spending are time-consuming and can take only a third of the fund at a time. This prevents impetuous spending. Hines' bills would make a raid on the fund a quick and easy proposition with the amount in question potentially larger than the one-third level.

Dedicating the money to an education fund is a smokescreen to make this raid more palatable. But the whole dedication philosophy in this state usually is flawed in application. Dedication of spending, which now makes up close to three-quarters of the entire budget, makes sense only when the source of revenues are related to the expenditure purpose. For example, if a tax on cigarettes was then funneled into health care expenditures on diseases believed caused by smoking, that makes sense. The wrong way of doing it would be to have two entirely unrelated matters (mineral extraction and education) connected in an almost-unalterable way. This lack of budget flexibility hampers the state in addressing policy concerns. Neither of these need ever see the light of day agin.

SCORECARD: 86 House prefiles (including budget bills), 3 withdrawals (including HB 54 which was the Mar. 11 ugly bill of the week); 38 Senate prefiles, 2 withdrawals.

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