By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – The annual nightmare faced by the Louisiana Legislature in recent years with hundred million dollar budget deficits will never come to an end unless the state has an experience similar to the recent presidential election, the head of LABI told attendees at a joint luncheon for the east and west chambers in St. Tammany Parish.
Steve Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, was the guest speaker at Trinity’s banquet hall and spelled out a bleak picture of the state’s economic situation.
Residents in Louisiana have watched for several years in a row as state lawmakers wrestled with budget deficits so large that they approached $1 billion in some years.
With new Gov. John Bel Edwards taking office last year he pressed the Legislature to pass the largest tax hikes in state history to deal with the problem. But Waguespack said that will never be the answer and it is confirmed by watching the problem continue. Even with over $4 billion more in taxes Louisiana residents are now paying compared to 15 months ago, state lawmakers are expected to face yet another budget deficit in the coming fiscal year of over $300 million.
“The problem with raising taxes is that it puts a burden on small businesses. That means they make less money, so they pay less overall taxes, and then the state actually still has the problem,” Waguespack said as members of the East St. Tammany Chamber and the St. Tammany West Chamber listened to the speaker at a joint luncheon with both groups attending.
“Louisiana needs big change. The state needs the kind of change that led to Donald Trump becoming the president. The reason he won was because the Midwest states were finally sick of the east and west coasts controlling things and allowing such an intrusive federal process. Voters finally said it was time for a big change, and that’s what it will take in Louisiana or we will continue to see the budget problems,” he explained.
In the coming session this spring Waguespack said there will be four key areas for lawmakers to address: the budget deficit, the criminal justice system and protection for police officers, legal reform and the infrastructure.
There is already talk of an increased gas tax to direct more money to roads around the state, but the problem with that tax, said Waguespack, is that residents here have seen years past when lawmakers promised certain tax increases would go to infrastructure, but then they didn’t.
“Look around for the work that was supposed to come from those taxes and you can’t find it. The public doesn’t trust DOTD (Department of Transportation) to handle the money right so until they guarantee where the money will go, and rebuild the public trust, the gas tax won’t get much support,” he said.
Waguespack also said Louisiana needs to crack down on legal reform since Louisiana rates the 49th worst state for businesses to get sued.
“I hear from a lot of business people out-of-state and they are worried about the legal climate here,” he added.
On the criminal justice front he expects to see a focus on an improved work release system for non-violent offenders so prisoners can leave jail and already have the skills to get a job, thereby keeping them from returning to a life of crime. And he also expects some bills to provide greater protection for police officers.
“We are all tired of seeing the stories about our officers being shot,” he said. “The number one thing is to provide better protection for them.”
The budget deficit, however, will still be the top issue facing lawmakers and unfortunately, Waguespack said, Edwards is already talking about more taxes to increase the revenue.
“We don’t have a revenue problem in Louisiana,” Waguespack said. “Our problem is that we can’t afford the level of spending we have seen. One other way to improve things is to unlock the pet project funds, which total about $4 billion. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is changeable and until we confront these funds we can’t tax our way out of this mess.”
Finally, Waguespack noted the runaway expenses to fund the state retirement programs, as well as increasing costs for Medicaid.
“Those two programs need reform, but until Louisiana does what the rest of the country did in calling for serious change we won’t see things improve a lot,” he noted. “The change isn’t going to come from Baton Rouge. The people need to drive the change.”