Louisiana’s 2023 Regular Legislative Session ended on June 8th with a bang. Amid much arguing and a lot of untransparent, last-minute maneuvering, the Legislature passed a big-spending budget that busted through its own limits on spending extra taxpayer dollars (also known as the “spending cap” or the “expenditure limit”).
When the dust settled, the legislature spent approximately $2.2 billion in extra revenue this year and nearly $1 billion more than was originally expected in fiscal year 2024 (FY 24). In doing so, they missed a critical opportunity to save for the future, pay down debt, and put Louisiana on a path toward a comeback.
Louisiana’s Weak Expenditure Limit Is A Problem
When the government takes in more tax dollars, politicians tend to spend it. Unfortunately, as budgets grow year after year, that spending keeps getting higher and higher. That might seem OK in good times, when more money is coming in. But when bad times come, revenue drops, and taxpayers are stuck paying for an unsustainable budget. That’s why a spending cap is important.
Think of it this way. If you get a raise at work and have more money to spend, you might decide to go on a spending spree and buy a new car or a bigger house. But if you lose your job (and don’t have money saved up), you’re going to struggle to pay your bills. That’s what’s happening with Louisiana’s budget.
Over the last few years, tax increases, personal income growth, and massive infusions of federal dollars led to an influx of cash. In other words, these are “good times” from a fiscal perspective, and more money has been coming into the state’s coffers. Unfortunately, Louisiana’s spending cap is weak, ineffective, arbitrary, and inconsistent—and it allows legislators to keep busting through its limits. This year, the legislature decided to irresponsibly raise the limit by $1.4 billion to $17.9 billion—12.7% higher than the original limit in FY 23—so they could go on a spending spree.
Where Did the Extra Money Come From?
In FY 23, there was an additional $2.2 billion more than was originally appropriated to fund the state government. This included $726 million remaining from FY 22 (called a surplus) and an additional $1.5 billion in revenue and budget savings in FY 23 (called an excess). Fiscal conservatives in the legislature presented an option to spend this money wisely, without busting the spending cap, by saving for a rainy day, triggering tax relief for all taxpayers, paying down costly debt, and improving dilapidated infrastructure. However, as the carrot was waved in front of many legislators to “bring home the bacon,” many caved to the pressure and voted to raise the spending cap and spend all the available money.
The FY 24 budget as passed by the Legislature totals a record-breaking $51 billion and added roughly $800 million in new, recurring spending (spending that must continue year after year). This budget is nearly double what was spent just ten years ago. This budget growth is unsustainable and beyond the ability of the average Louisiana taxpayer to pay.
*FY 23 budget as of 12/1/2022
** FY 24 appropriations as passed by the Legislature
Where was the money spent?
With the influx of more than $2.2 billion in tax revenue above and beyond what was needed to run an already bloated state government budget, plus an additional $1 billion for the following year, lawmakers used a series of budget bills to appropriate these funds that exceeded the expenditure limit in both years and grew the budget irresponsibly for future years when revenues are predicted to decline.
A mere $60 million more deposited into the Rainy Day Fund–instead of some of the above favored member projects–would have triggered tax relief for millions of Louisiana taxpayers. It would have been modest, to be sure, but it was promised by the legislature in 2021 that if revenues exceeded a certain growth rate, taxes would be lowered by that amount. And revenues did exceed a very generous growth rate, but because not enough money was placed in the savings account, the trigger wasn’t met. In other words, lawmakers actively chose to spend a modest portion of the $2.2 billion total that was intended for tax relief on other favored projects.
While there was much debate and discussion, very little was given to paying down debt. The $473 million to LASERS debt is just half of what was originally planned in the House passed version of the budget bills, which would have freed up over 8% of employee benefit costs for the state. In the end, only $50 million, which was the required payment, went to TRSL, the teacher’s retirement system. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $600 million proposed by the House for teachers and $800 million for state workers. The total owed on public employee retirement debt totals more than $19 billion and total debt owed by the state is more than $29 billion, this payment represents pocket change. The $525 million in debt payments that made it through the entire process is helpful, to be sure, but frees up very little and does not improve the outlook much in the long-run.
To add insult to injury, no forethought was given to the types and locations of infrastructure projects in the state, primarily taking shape in the form of pork barrel projects to local governments for local parks, roads, water systems, and the like, rather than a comprehensive, thoughtful plan put forth that maintained current state roads and built new capacity to move Louisiana forward in the future.
Better Budgeting for the Future
There should be a better guardrail placed on budget growth which sets a maximum that can be appropriated each year. This will provide an easy, transparent way to see if responsible budgeting occurs throughout the session. Of course, a spending limit should ultimately be based on spending, but using appropriations gives taxpayers a better way to see how their money is being used throughout the legislative process. And there is a better metric to use that represents the average taxpayer’s ability to pay for government spending in the rate of population growth plus inflation.
This is why the Pelican Institute released the proposed Responsible Louisiana Budget (RLB) earlier this year which limits state funds to less than the average rate of population growth plus inflation over the last three years. The method is being recommended in more than 10 other states to help rein in out of control spending with mixed results. For the FY 24 RLB, the growth rate was 4.1% over FY 23 appropriations for a maximum of state funds appropriations of $21.4 billion. This amount is different from the state’s current expenditure limit as there are different amounts covered and the amount should be the largest part of the budget possible, which is why we started with state funds, but more would be preferable.
The following chart shows the recommended RLB and what the actual budget looks like, which is $2.4 billion higher than the RLB.
Therefore, this is an irresponsible budget and is unsustainable given the ongoing expenditures throughout the budget. There was some good use of funds to pay down debt, but otherwise this growth in the budget will mean greater spending restraint or higher taxes will be necessary to keep these services, activities, and projects funded in the future. And this is not the time to do this given that more people are leaving Louisiana than moving in and there are economic headwinds on the horizon. We need a comeback story now. This budget is a tremendous, missed opportunity and actually hurts that effort. Our state’s leaders must do better going forward.
This year, lawmakers had a unique and significant opportunity to make a real difference for the future of Louisiana. But that opportunity was squandered by Louisiana politics at its finest. The state had a historic opportunity to pay down debt and save for the future, setting Louisiana on a path to fiscal responsibility and sustainability. Lawmakers also had an opportunity to provide much needed tax relief amid record-breaking inflationary times to help families across the state, and they had the opportunity to address the astronomical backlog of infrastructure needs in a responsible and organized fashion. Instead, lawmakers followed the path of least resistance, to “bring home the bacon” and continue to increase local government dependence on the state, while also continuing to grow state government in an unsustainable way.
It is very likely lawmakers in the new term will be faced with similar decisions in the 2024 Legislative Session. Will Louisiana voters continue to elect leaders who will continue down the path of unsustainability, or will they elect leaders who will make the responsible decisions to put Louisiana on a path to a Comeback Story?
Originally posted at Pelican Institute with co-author Jamie Tairov.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.