Annual Louisiana Survey Should Make State GOP Officials Rethink Political Messaging, Legislative Agenda. But It Won’t.

The governor’s agenda enjoys broad, bipartisan support, while his political adversaries bank on a strategy of amnesia and disinformation.

It’s the surplus, stupid.

Only a paltry 8% of Louisiana residents believe that if the state collects more revenue than it needs for current expenditures, then it should give back the entire surplus through tax cuts, according to the second of six reports issued by LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab at the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs, a part of the center’s annual Louisiana Survey. It was one of several findings that reveal a sharp disconnect between the political messaging and legislative agenda advanced by state Republican leaders and elected officials and the opinions held by large majorities of Louisiana residents.

It’s also a timely data point considering the cynical efforts by House Speaker Taylor Barras, state Rep. Cameron Henry, and state Attorney General Jeff Landry to manufacture a stalemate in the Revenue Estimating Committee in order to force Gov. John Bel Edwards and other lawmakers to use two-year-old, incorrect revenue projections for this year’s budget.

The problem for Republicans is that, as a result of measures that ensured Louisiana was no longer dancing around the edge of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the state’s finances are in much better shape than they had been expected to be two years ago. Republicans seem to be gambling that most voters can be convinced they are merely insisting on fiscal conservativism, when, in fact, they are actually advancing fake math as a way of denying the governor and his allies in the legislature the ability to utilize surplus revenue to restore funding for education and other services while also offering targeted tax cuts to those most in need. It’s a policy agenda that, when taken together with the 23% of residents who only want increased spending, enjoys the support of as much as 88% of the state.

As Sue Lincoln explained yesterday in her opening day report of the new legislative session, “…House Speaker Taylor Barras, in his role as one of four members of the Revenue Estimating Committee, has steadfastly refused to vote ‘yes’ to acknowledge increased state revenue for the current fiscal year and next. By law, any revisions to the official forecast must receive unanimous votes.” By refusing the revised revenue estimate, Speaker Barras (R- New Iberia) is not only attempting to deny the governor the opportunity to present an accurate budget, he is also denying the policy outcome desired by the vast majority of state residents, both Republicans and Democrats.

“I know we’re not used to hearing the word ‘surplus’ around here very often, but I have checked with economists and it turns out surpluses are actually better than deficits,” Gov. Edwards joked during his opening remarks. “And unlike in the past, all we have to do is recognize the revenue right in front of us.”

To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the surplus, stupid.

Politicians may lie, but the numbers don’t.

The Louisiana Survey, now in its fifteenth year, aims “to establish benchmarks as well as to capture change in residents’ assessments of state government services.” This year’s survey has a margin of error of + / – 4.6 percentage points, due to an “iterative procedure that matches race, education, household income, gender, and age to known profiles of Louisiana found in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survery 2017 one-year estimates; as a result, LSU added 1.4 points.

Taken on its own, the findings on surplus spending should be enough to force state GOP leaders to change their approach on the budget, but when considered in its totality, this year’s survey can be read as a wholesale repudiation of the talking points that state Republican officials have been peddling for the better part of the past four years.

To be sure, the Louisiana Survey is not a political document; it makes no political judgments, merely providing results without editorial comment. Still, numbers often speak louder than words, and unlike politicians, these numbers don’t lie.

Notably, there is one talking point the GOP has been peddling that appears to have achieved some degree of success. The title of the second report about the Louisiana Survey is “Widespread misperceptions about state’s income, sales, and gasoline tax rates,” and while this was out of the scope of their analysis, the title deserves a six-word preface: “Coordinated Republican disinformation campaign leads to widespread misperceptions about state’s income, sales, and gasoline tax rates.”

“Substantial numbers of state residents incorrectly believe that Louisiana has increased its tax rates on individual and household incomes in recent years – 46 percent say these tax rates are higher than they were four years ago, and 32 percent say they are higher than one year ago,” according to the survey. While 60% of residents were correct when they stated that the sales tax rate is higher than it was four years ago, 40% believed the rate is higher than it was just last year; in fact, it’s lower. (With respect to the gasoline tax, no one seems to know what it is — 38.5 cents per gallon, but funny enough, two-thirds of residents support a gas tax increase of 5 cents; 46% support an increase of 20 cents).

Without any doubt, the widespread confusion about tax rates is not a function of the messages from Republicans in D.C., who have done their damndest to convince red state voters in places like Louisiana that the $1 trillion Trump tax cut that disportionately provides for the very wealthiest Americans is really a tax cut for everyone. The confusion, instead, is the direct result of the fake news and disinformation that Louisiana state Republicans have peddled from the second after Bobby Jindal’s moving van exited the front driveway of the Governor’s Mansion en route to his new home in Baton Rouge’s University Club.

To be fair, it’s a disinformation campaign that also relies on assistance from anti-government propagandists propped up by the Koch Brothers’ network of PACs, phony think tanks, and astroturf “social welfare” organizations as well as wealthy corporatist ideologues like Lane Grigsby and his nonprofit, Truth in Politics (a name that seems like it must’ve been lifted directly from Orwell).

It’s difficult to fault residents for being misinformed about tax rates when they’ve been bombarded with false and misleading political spin disguised as authoritative reporting.

“Louisiana taxes are some of the highest in the nation, but Gov. John Bel Edwards wants more,” blares Truth in Politics. In truth, however, Louisiana’s tax burden ranks among the bottom third in the country, and the state actually receives more money from the federal government than it contributes in taxes.

Louisiana has the lowest property tax rates in the entire country; its state income tax is squarely within the national average, yet every year, the state- with a population of only 4.7 million people- gives away billions in subsidies and incentives to some of the world’s most profitable businesses.

It is true that the state does have the second-highest sales tax rate in the country, but it is also true that this was a direct result of the disastrous fiscal policies undertaken by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who left the state with a projected $1.6 billion shortfall, a nearly bankrupted higher education system, and a downgraded credit rating; the temporary sales tax hike was entirely due to the brinksmanship by state House Republicans, who refused to even consider proposals that would have spread the burden more equitably, pretending as if they could simply ignore their constitutional requirement to pass a balanced budget. We should demand intellectual and historical honesty.

Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham (R- LA05), who is campaigning for governor against John Bel Edwards, blasted out this graphic on his social media:

This is worth briefly unpacking: The reason Louisiana ranks poorly in opportunity, according to the survey’s authors, is due to institutional racism, income inequality, an anemic minimum wage, a dearth of funding for public education, a lack of a robust social safety network, and a failure to ensure equal pay for equal work. These are all issues that have been at the front and center of Gov. Edwards’ agenda, and, in some cases, their solutions are in direct opposition with Rep. Abraham’s vision of a government that increases burdens and requirements on the poor in order to redistribute even more wealth to the already-wealthy.

Worst state to find a job? That comes from an internet marketing website, which didn’t bother to even pretend to have a methodology; in fact, in making this assessment, the website inflated the state’s unemployment rate, which, apparently, was one of its key metrics.

And finally, $7 billion in higher taxes? This appears to be a feat of creative mathematics dreamt up by Dan Fagan, a conservative talk radio host who writes a weekly opinion column for The Advocate. But the best thing about this particular talking point: It’s eviscerated in a column posted on the congressional website of U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.

Embarrassingly, someone in the congressman’s office forgot to clip out the final paragraph, which reads, “Some critics have accused the governor of raising $7 billion in taxes since he took office, which is a wild figment of their imaginations. Edwards inherited a $2 billion budget deficit when he took office in 2016, and legislators agreed to raise $1.4 billion in temporary taxes to close the shortfall.”

Epic troll, Jim Beam of The American Press.

This is even better than when the congressman asserted Louisiana had the highest sales tax rate in the nation, only to be corrected in a subtweet by the source he’d referenced.

Trust the Data. Not the Twitteratti.

But aside Abraham’s remarkable talent for the “self-own,” there is a larger problem with the strategy of doubling down on disinformation about taxes: During the past year, there has been a dramatic shift of opinion about whether residents believe the state is on the right track, and today, more people believe the state is headed in the right direction, according to LSU’s first report about the 2019 Louisiana Survey.

If you’re a Republican hoping to unseat the Democratic governor, this isn’t a promising trend line, and if you dig a little deeper, it gets even more daunting. Quoting:

Unsurprisingly, Democrats are especially positive in their view: 55 percent say the state is heading in the right direction and 37 percent say it is heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps less expected, Republicans do not take an especially negative view of the state’s direction under the administration of Democratic governor John Bel Edwards. They split evenly between those who say the state is heading in the right direction (46 percent) and those who say the state is heading in the wrong direction (45 percent).

And according to the third report, which was published this morning, there is broad, bipartisan support for two of the governor’s primary legislative priorities: increasing teacher pay and raising the minimum wage. In fact, the majority of residents would support raising taxes to pay for increasing salaries for teachers and would also support hiking the minimum wage to $15/hour, both of which are more ambitious proposals than the governor’s pitch to state legislators.

In political campaigns, money may talk— and pay people to talk for you on social media— but data is destiny.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.