Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday unveiled a complicated and dramatic restructuring of Louisiana’s much-maligned tax system, proposing to lower some tax rates in exchange for eliminating many tax breaks and making businesses subject to a new tax on sales.
Exact figures were not immediately available, but the net effect appears to reduce taxes for most individuals but the wealthy, while making larger businesses pay more.
In 2015, 129,000 of the 149,000 corporate tax filers in Louisiana paid no taxes to the state, the Department of Revenue said, because of a plethora of tax exemptions in the code.
Overall, Edwards’ plan appears to raise more money, but the administration could not provide the exact amount.
Edwards said the plan would provide stability for businesses and end Louisiana’s budget problems, and he sounded like a populist from the school of Huey Long and Edwin Edwards as he offered one rationale for it.
“For far too long, the people of Louisiana have footed the bill for costly tax credits and exemptions while too many very profitable businesses don’t pay a penny of income taxes,” he said.
The governor released his plan only days before the state Legislature convenes for its 60-day regular session on April 10, where questions over taxes and the state’s chronic budget deficits will predominate.
Legislators are under pressure this year to solve the so-called “fiscal cliff” that they created in 2016 by causing $1.3 billion in temporary taxes to expire next year. Given that that amount represents more than 15 percent of the $9.5 billion state portion of the overall budget, no one has put forth a credible plan to make up most or all of the loss in revenue through cuts in government spending alone. That has led the governor to propose the tax measures.
Under his plan, Edwards would reduce the sales tax rate and corporate and individual income tax rates, eliminate popular corporate and individual income tax breaks, extend the sales tax to a dozen or so new transactions, phase out the corporate franchise tax and create a Commercial Activity Tax that would act as a tax on business sales. He is no longer planning to eliminate the corporate income tax.
Essentially, the governor would replace the $880 million per year lost by not renewing the one-cent sales tax increase by having the Legislature implement the Commercial Activity Tax. Louisiana currently has the highest combined – local and state – sales tax in the nation at an average 10 percent. His plan would reduce it to 9 percent. Businesses pay about half of the sales tax.
Edwards also proposed one structural change to the state budget, a measure that would limit the Legislature to spending only 98 percent of the projected available revenue. The proposal would not take effect until the state’s finances improve.
It’s one thing for Edwards to present his package before reporters, his staff and a few business lobbyists and good-government types in the governor’s 4th floor press room in the State Capitol. It’s an entirely different matter for the Democratic governor to get the Republican-controlled House and Senate, meeting in their respective chambers on the first floor beginning next month, to approve it.
Creating the business tax on sales would require winning a two-thirds approval in both the House and the Senate. Eliminating tax exemptions also would require meeting that high bar.
Edwards also wants to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to eliminate a popular tax break for individuals and corporations in conjunction with lowering their tax rates. To do that would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber plus a majority vote of the people.
Even before Edwards introduced his plan, several powerful business groups in Baton Rouge expressed dismay with the corporate tax on sales, and Republicans in the more conservative House have yet to show any appetite for big changes to the tax code.
“It’s a serious proposal that deserves a serious discussion,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a Baton Rouge-based think tank, after watching the governor deliver the plan.
Edwards released it two months after a 13-member blue-ribbon panel – that included Scott – issued a 71-page final report containing a series of recommendations, after spending much of 2016 studying the tax code at the Legislature’s behest.
“A failure to act is not an option,” the task force said in a final report that decried a “broken and inefficient tax system.”
Many of the governor’s proposals follow the task force’s recommendations – more so than had been expected.
“We’ve got the blueprint for how to get this done,” Edwards said. “Now it’s up to us to find the courage to make the decisions to bring stability, predictability and fairness to our state.”
The task force called for not renewing the temporary one-cent sales tax coupled with ending many sales tax exemptions and extending the sales tax to transactions taxed in Texas but not currently in Louisiana. Edwards’ plan calls for this. Those transactions include landscaping, cable TV service and attending sporting events.
The task force – which was chaired by Kimberly Robinson, the governor’s Revenue secretary and Jim Richardson, an LSU economics professor – also called for individuals and corporations to no longer receive a deduction, on their state tax returns, for the amount of taxes they pay on their federal tax returns, in exchange for getting lower individual and corporate tax rates. Edwards’ plan also calls for this, which was a surprise.
Robinson had said last week that the governor would not include these income tax proposals in his overall plan because voters in November rejected the same changes for corporate taxes.
The federal income tax deduction mostly benefits wealthier taxpayers so 90 percent of individual tax filers would pay less if voters ultimately approved this part of the overall plan, Edwards said.
The task force did not recommend the Commercial Activity Tax, also known as a gross receipts tax. Under Edwards’ plan, businesses that have less than $1.5 million in sales per year would pay no more than $750. Above $1.5 million in sales, they would pay 0.35 percent in tax on their taxable gross receipts. Of the 414,000 businesses in the state, 389,000 would pay only $250, the administration said.
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, who was Edwards’ roommate when he was a state legislator from Amite, will sponsor the legislation.
The Commercial Activity Tax would take effect in 2018 while the corporate franchise tax would phase out over 10 years.
Edwards wants to end sales tax exemptions next year that would raise $180 million. He also wants to expand the sales tax next year, which would raise $200 million more.
He would use that money next year to, among other things, fully fund the TOPS scholarship plan, provide more money for the public health care system that serves the poor and disabled and provide 2.75 percent more for K-12 schools that otherwise would lose ground to inflation. Without the extra revenue, he has said Louisiana is facing a “standstill” budget in which the state would have no more money to spend next year than the current year.
Edwards is seeking the biggest changes to the state’s tax system since voters followed the recommendation of state legislators and then-Gov. Mike Foster in 2002 and shifted the overall tax burden from sales taxes to income taxes. Legislators under Gov. Kathleen Blanco in 2007 and Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2008 reduced taxes for business and higher-income individuals. In many ways, Edwards is seeking to return to the system approved by voters.
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