Mayor-President Kip Holden’s fourth attempt to pass a tax increase to fund parish infrastructure improvements is already receiving a warmer reception from council members and other political leaders than his past attempts.
Reacting to his previous failures, Holden stripped down the package to focus on law enforcement — something that voters and even the mayor’s critics have repeatedly said they consider a major priority for the parish. But some political watchers and council members still question whether members of the public are ready and willing to vote to increase their tax burden, even for what they consider a worthwhile cause.
Louisiana consumers already spend more in sales taxes than almost every other state in the country. The proposed sales tax increase would not only put some areas of East Baton Rouge Parish among the highest rates in the state but also would rank as some of the steepest sales taxes when compared with other major metropolitan areas across the country.
The $335 million tax plan, supported by the parish’s law enforcement leaders, would fund a new larger jail, a mental health facility, a new office for the district attorney and public defender, and improvements for the new public safety headquarters for the Police Department on Airline Highway.
The construction component of the program would be funded with a quarter-penny sales tax increase. The operational expenses would be paid for by a half-mill property tax hike for the mental health facility and a 1.5-mill increase for additional operations for a larger jail.
“We have one of the highest sales tax rates in the country, and with this increase, we’d have a really, really high sales tax,” Baton Rouge political analyst Roy Fletcher said. “At that point, you are driving consumers out of the parish to buy something else.”
But Fletcher also noted that in Baton Rouge, even tax-averse voters tend to support public safety initiatives.
It’s a notion that has been proven time after time as neighborhood associations pile on to approve annual fees, some costing hundreds of dollars a year, for additional police protection.
If approved, consumers in the cities of Baton Rouge, Zachary and the unincorporated parts of the parish will pay 9.25 percent in combined local and state sales taxes. In Baker and Central, sales taxes would increase to 9.75 percent.
While Louisiana’s sales taxes are high, property taxes for homeowners are comparatively low. Louisianians pay about $776 per person in property taxes, which is ranked eighth-lowest nationally, according to the Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy research group.
But even conservative activist Woody Jenkins said he is keeping an open mind about the public safety tax package, though he has questions about whether the infrastructure improvements could be accomplished without a tax increase. He said Holden’s most recent iteration of the tax proposal, unlike his previous attempts, addresses “legitimate needs.”
“I think any tax will be a tough sell with voters,” he said. “But if there’s anything voters would approve, it’s something like this.”
Jenkins said he thinks some voters are experiencing “tax fatigue,” in particular after the passage of the 2012 property tax for the Capital Area Transit System.
“When you pass taxes like that, it wears people out so they don’t want to pass taxes for legitimate things,” said Jenkins, a former state legislator and the current chairman of the parish Republican Party. He opposed the CATS tax.
Jan Moller, director of the liberal Louisiana Budget Project, said sales taxes are among the most regressive taxes, because expenses for goods, food and clothing tend to make up a higher percentage of poor consumers’ overall budgets.
He said his organization is not taking a position on the local tax plan, but he was concerned about increasing the parish’s already high sales tax burden.
“Louisiana has the third-highest combined sales tax rate in the country,” he said. “I hope people will act with caution before they make that even higher.”
The Metro Council will vote on the proposal at the Wednesday council meeting. If it approves the plans, they will go to voters May 2.
Almost all of the council members have said they agree that the proposed law enforcement initiatives are needed and that they support the creation of a new, larger parish prison.
Still, some council members say they are on the fence about asking taxpayers to foot the bill.
Councilman Joel Boé said he will not vote to support the proposal on Wednesday because he hasn’t received satisfactory answers to all of his questions about financing the $204 million jail.
He said he wants the administration to explore the possibility of a public-private partnership to finance the jail.
Councilman Trae Welch also said he felt the city-parish could potentially save money by partially privatizing the prison.
“All of these things are incredibly important, but the question is how do you pay for it?” Welch said. He said the Mayor’s Office provided the details of the tax proposal to the council only last week and has not adequately answered his questions.
But several other council members already have come out in support of the proposal, saying it’s necessary to fulfill the public safety needs in the parish.
Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said she “absolutely” supports the proposal and encourages voters to support it. But she also said, at a minimum, voters should be given an opportunity to decide.
“I don’t think anything of that magnitude should be left to 12 people,” she said.
Holden’s previous tax plans were between $748 million and $989 million and included more money for economic development and parish infrastructure. But the plans met with defeat, both at the polls and once by the Metro Council.
Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.
Editor’s note: Story was edited post publication to remove a quote predicting consumers would go out of parish to buy cars.