Thursday April 30, 2009
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN
THE LOUISIANA LEGISLATURE’S IN SESSION
Every observer of Louisiana politics is aware of Mark Twain’s adage: “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the Legislature is in session.” Actually, it was New York Judge Gideon Tucker who first made the perceptive statement in 1866. Will Rogers reflected that: “We have come to feel the same when the legislature is in session as we do when the baby gets hold of a hammer. It’s just a question of how much damage he can do with it before you take it away from him.” You get the idea. And yes, the storm clouds are gathering, for the state capitol in Baton Rouge is alive and buzzing.
There is strong justification for more concerns this year than the first session of this new administration a year ago. Over half the members were new last year, and the overriding issue was a pay raise for lawmakers. But last year’s gathering lasted only 30 days. This time, with a year of experience to learn the tricks of the trade, these parliamentarians have 60 days to vent their sway over our lives.
So what’s on the plate to force us to keep our guard up?First of all, the state treasury has a shortfall this year of at least one billion dollars. I say at least, for in being a close observer of Louisiana state government for some 30 years, I have found that the numbers are generally under reported. And legislators have a clever way of taking one time money from a particular dedicated fund and use it for recurring expenses. So the deficit could well be much more. But rather then cut back on spending, a number of proposals are in the hopper to give “special tax breaks” to only certain classes of people. And when such submissions become law, it’s you and I who are taxed more to make up the difference.
Take the increase in the homestead exemption. Good idea to encourage homeownership. But in most parishes, a large part of the property tax base is dedicated. And under Louisiana law, if there is a shortfall in the tax revenues collected, the tax has to be increased to make up the difference.
In East Baton Rouge Parish for example, there is a proposal to sell bonds in order to build a new parish prison. The bonds would be paid through a new millage on property taxes. If the homestead exemption is raised from the current $75,000 to the proposed $100,000, those homes worth more than $100,000 will see their property tax increased to make up the necessary funds to pay down the bonds. Businesses have no exemption so they too would see a significant tax increase. Bottom line-there is no free lunch.
There are a slew full of similar deduction requests. No income tax for those 65 and older. A tax credit for moving expenses to persons who relocate to Louisiana. A tax rebate to out of stators who come to Louisiana and buy a car. No tax on a computer if used for medical purposes. A deduction for all expenses for homeschooling and for kids in private schools. More tax breaks for the movie industry. (As this column has written before, Louisiana gets much less in taxes than they give out in tax credits to Hollywood South.) Fuel dealers would get a tax break for any generator they buy. No more income taxes to be paid by fireman, policeman and all veterans. All laudatory groups that are deserving of help. But guess who has to make up the difference? That’s right. All the rest of us.
And how about this “tax amnesty” for those citizens who never got around to paying their taxes. This will be the fifth such program in the last 24 years. So the tax evader gets no penalty, can invest his money for five or six years, pays no interest, and gets rewarded for not paying the required taxes. As legislative watchdog C.B. Forgotston delicately points out, “In other words, those of us who paid our taxes and paid them on time are getting screwed. The tax evaders have been allowed to keep and invest their money compliments of the state.”
Besides the proliferation of tax breaks, some legislators want to keep state government growing with a number of proposals for new boards and commissions, As this column pointed out last week, it’s time to shrink, not grow. One proposal in New Orleans would create a new board, to be paid $150 dollars a meeting plus expenses, to oversee one of the bridges that crosses the Mississippi River. Panels already oversee two bridges in the greater New Orleans area. What is it about New Orleans legislators that they have to have groups of non professionals who are paid to oversee a bridge? Baton Rouge has two bridges and a third underway that seems to operate quite well with only the state highway department overseeing the day to day administration and maintenance.
Outside of hopefully getting spending under control and balancing the state budget, there is nothing redeeming that really needs to be done in Baton Rouge. Thousands of demonstrators nationwide last week held “Tea Parties” to protest economic plans in Washington. If there are plenty of tea bags to spread around, a few need to be dropped off at the state capitol. Our legislators need to realize that tax breaks for some usually man a tax increase for the rest of us. Now is not the time to go beyond the simple premise that most of us just want to be left alone.
With the economic mess we are in, we have crazy politicians in office spending money like it’s monopoly money.” Larry Nevins
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown Jim Brown’s column appears weekly in a number of newspapers and websites throughout the state. You can see all previous columns on his website at www.jimbrownla.com.