Our Views: The Baton Rouge Area Chamber plan is right for dealing with real budget cuts

The Advocate

A popular theme, particularly among new candidates for office, is that instead of raising taxes, the state, or the city, or the nation should drastically cut expenditures. Cuts are thought to be easy, just a problem of philosophically weak legislators or council members who fail to stand up to big-spending bureaucracies.

This is, of course, nonsense, despite how frequently we’re going to hear variations on the theme in the fall elections. Just about every government expenditure arises out of a particular problem that is sought to be addressed, and the appropriations or ordinances that spend money are usually not sneaked through or the result of some nefarious scheme. Instead, they are appropriations that deal with particular problems passed in the light of day but without the spotlight on them.

Getting rid of even some government programs is not easy, and it takes a concerted plan to do so. We think the Baton Rouge Area Chamber is right to put a new and constructive emphasis on a process to tackle appropriations that are now in the state budget on autopilot, renewed year after year without the scrutiny needed.

The administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal claims much more success than it actually has achieved in cutting government spending. In fact, it’s increased spending in some areas and increased taxes and fees. Sorting out the mess, as the 2015 legislative session’s results indicated, is probably going to be a case of both raising new and permanent revenues and tackling expenditures in a more significant way.

The BRAC plan authored by Michael DiResto, a former state Division of Administration official, proposes that the new governor and Legislature embark on a process of identifying and trimming the so-called “statutory dedications” that drain money from the general fund. While the state budget has gone up, dedications have limited the government’s flexibility in allocating its money. “We’re spending more but prioritizing less,” DiResto’s report quips.

The BRAC plan would try some of the old standbys, such as a citizen committee to target wasteful spending, and the Public Affairs Research Council’s long-standing proposal to set a “sunset” date for every dedication. Some of the proposals are technical but would have significant impact, such as giving the governor and Legislature more latitude in what and how much they can cut when facing a deficit.

Unfortunately, as Jindal’s team has found in recent years, most of the dedications reflect spending that the lawmakers and the folks back home are loath to give up. And no one benefiting from a state appropriation wants to have to fight for it year after year; they say their particular need, whether it’s state paychecks for local sheriff’s deputies or care for the aged and infirm, or anything else, is too important to be left to the “political” process.

The result of those demands is dedicated funding and no year-to-year scrutiny of the state’s overall needs. Businesses, of course, expect their tax breaks to go on forever, too, draining the general fund from the revenue side.

There should be a systematic approach to budget cutting that puts the interests of the taxpayer ahead of the particular interests that have, for a long time, put a “straitjacket” on the state’s general fund.

In a perfect world, a new governor would go to the mat to undo many dedications. Maybe that will happen, but it is more likely that the BRAC plan would generate annual pressure on dedicated spending to prioritize more. Much will depend on a governor who names a commissioner to head a Division of Administration committed to cutting spending.

The BRAC plan may not be the best possible solution, but it may be the best solution possible to an intractable political problem.

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