PAR shares ideas to improve governance


Three nonprofits have joined forces to push for needed structural changes and reforms of Louisiana's tax environment, pension systems and constitution, said the president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.

PAR President Robert Travis Scott was the guest speaker at the Greater Hammond Chamber of Commerce's Just the Facts breakfast presentation Tuesday. He talked with a small gathering at Oak Knoll Country Club about an effort by PAR, the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Committee of 100 called "Reset Louisiana's Future."

The nonpartisan reform effort is looking at 2020 as an opportunity to make changes in four areas: education, state finances, criminal justice/public safety and transportation/infrastructure. Scott talked about the initiative's ideas to fix state finances.

State representatives and candidates are focusing on the upcoming Oct. 12 election that includes several open legislative seats and the governor's race, he said. He is hopeful the environment will be right next year for pitching changes. The budget's relative stability helps as well, he said.

The governor's race could impact whether a push for structural reforms will gain traction sooner rather than later, he said.

A new governor might make promises to shake up state government, he said. On the other hand, Gov. John Bel Edwards getting re-elected for a second consecutive term could make him feel invigorated to pursue reforms, he said.

PAR is a private, nonprofit research organization that strives to be a watchdog of state government. Business leaders who make up the Committee of 100 focus on public policy issues that impact economic and business development. The business and community leaders of the Council for a Better Louisiana advocate for public policies on different topics.

Scott said Reset Louisiana is speaking with candidates around the state about issues and the initiative's ideas for solving them, including reforming the state's tax structure.

Louisiana's tax structure relies on high rates and not enough tax base, hurting economic development, he said. The state has some of the highest corporate and personal income tax rates in the nation, he said, and Louisiana is only behind Tennessee when it comes to the highest combined sales tax rate in the country.

Reset is calling for adjusted rates, an expanded tax base and fewer exemptions and deductions, saying it will make the state more competitive and fair.

The initiative believes local governments should put more emphasis on property taxes and the state should get rid of tax credits that are not providing a return on investment. The initiative is also calling for phasing out, eliminating or restructuring the franchise tax.

On pension systems, Scott said the state's unfunded accrued liability issue is not going away under the current payment plan. He described the situation as "cycle of eternal indebtedness."

According to Reset, Louisiana ranks ninth in the country for pension debt as a percentage of government employee and teacher payroll. Based on the retirement systems' annual reports, the combined unfunded accrued liability from the state's four retirement systems is more than $18 billion. Underfunding the pension systems hurts the recruitment and salaries of government workers and teachers, he said.

Reset is calling for the state to make sufficient payments toward the UAL so that it does not continue staying in debt. The initiative believes the state should consider a proposal to have a "hybrid system" that combines a defined benefit plan with a defined contribution plan. It has also proposed raising the retirement age and establishing a better cost-of-living adjustment process, according to its website.

Scott said it is time to revisit the Louisiana Constitution that has become too lengthy, confusing and restrictive. Reset believes the constitution should simply define basic rights, the state's principles, and the governmental structure, leaving detailed policy matters to statutes.

There are several ways to reform the constitution, including holding a convention. Another way is through the amendment process, including rewriting whole articles, he said.

Scott said PAR will release an online report on the meaning and impact of the constitution in its current form to encourage a discussion on how to improve the document. The research organization will also make recommendations for constitutional changes.