Inside Report: Even losing, new group makes mark

By the number of wins and losses, it wasn’t a particularly good legislative session for the Louisiana Budget Project.

Expand Medicaid? Nope. Regulate payday loans? Nope. Raise the minimum wage? Nope.

In fact, most of those bills didn’t make it out of committee.

Still, by the amount of attention garnered, and the fact that most of its key issues will be alive and well next year — if not more attention-getting in the 2015 election year — the relatively new center-left think tank headed by former Capitol reporter Jan Moller had a good session.

Groups pushing a broadly reformist agenda don’t necessarily have to win every time; changing public opinion as well as legislative opinion can take more than one session, or more than one four-year legislative term.

Some groups become more or less prominent because politics will throw up an issue that is in their wheelhouse. In 2013, it was the exhaustive study of the downsides of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to replace the income tax with sales taxes that made the Public Affairs Research Council central to the debate. The governor scrapped the tax plan on the opening day of the session.

In 2014, in terms of winning on specific bills, the Council for a Better Louisiana did well on defense. CABL has long backed accountability measures in public education, and the attacks on new Common Core academic standards was a major battle in the session. Even with the governor’s flip-flop on the issue — he was for Common Core before he was against it — little passed despite the heat generated by its debates.

Where the Budget Project shone was in providing both research and rhetoric about its issues, but it also benefits from its liberal tilt. It is affiliated with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and gives a Louisiana slant to national studies, as in higher education.

Minority Democrats happily championed issues like Medicaid expansion — and thus forced debates, and votes on the LBP issues. The payday lending issue was backed by volunteers in the Together Louisiana coalition of congregations; the group has already pledged to be back.

Next year’s Legislature meets in a fiscal session, so it will be shorter and more intense, and it also sets the stage for an election for not only legislative seats but an open gubernatorial chair.

If Democrats want to make gains in the Legislature, they will have to push an agenda to differentiate them from the GOP members and Jindal’s conservative policies. So that political agenda plays to LBP’s policy strengths.

Another reason that the Budget Project’s likely prominence next year: It is unabashedly in favor of raising revenues, either directly with tax increases or eliminating business tax loopholes.

Not only is the 2014-15 budget precariously balanced, but it “relies on $991 million that will not be available the following year, which means health care and education programs that citizens depend on will be at risk for major cuts unless policymakers find new sources of revenue,” the Budget Project noted in it is session wrap-up.

Many of the nonpartisan groups pushing issues in the State Capitol are business-led. Of course, PAR or CABL, or Blueprint Louisiana, might be in favor of tax reforms — particularly if revenue-neutral, not bringing in more money. Even then, the business-led groups are unlikely to take to the revenue cause with the √©lan of the Budget Project.

Jindal has pretty much exhausted the budgetary expedients and borrowing from the future that LBP — and PAR and others, as well — see as bad policy. Look to Moller’s LBP to be prominent in pushing new revenues to prop up the system.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.