By the Legislature’s Friday night deadline, Louisiana lawmakers filed about a thousand measures for the upcoming session, most of which dealt with a dire fiscal situation facing state government.
Though staffers were still posting the bills online late Friday, representatives had filed 776 bills and senators added another 271. The session begins April 13.
The legislation wasn’t all fiscally oriented.
Among the bills are efforts to kill state participation in Common Core, the higher academic goals set for public school students that have caused so much controversy; to control the growing cost of TOPS, the popular college tuition-paying program; and to detail how victims of sexual assault are treated.
Legislators are once again proposing bills aimed at regulating medical marijuana and reducing criminal penalties related to marijuana possession.
But most of the legislation deals with how to overcome a $1.6 billion deficit in revenues for the fiscal year that begins July 1 without having to make deep cuts in higher education and health care.
Gov. Bobby Jindal proposes to cut spending and raise revenues through a variety of methods. The largest chunk would come from changing the “refundable” status of a dozen tax credit programs — including those for solar energy, the restoration of historic homes and the inventory taxes paid to local governments by businesses. Basically, the idea is to allow taxpayers to apply the credit to the amount of taxes they owe, but anything more stays in the state treasury, rather than being refunded in the form of a check to the taxpayer.
The plan is controversial among those affected and requires legislation to enable the state to get at the money. Many legislators have voiced skepticism.
House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin said he is not going to move House Bill 1, the state budget, until the legislation clicks into place all these legalisms that would enable the state to turn “refundable” tax credits into “nonrefundable” ones.
Jindal’s chief of staff, Kyle Plotkin, said that’s fine by him.
“I filed the bill for (Jindal) to deal with that because, frankly, I don’t think anybody else wanted to. If it’s a piece of the puzzle, we ought to use it, but I got to tell you, frankly, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I told them the same thing,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. State Rep. Bryan Adams, R-Gretna, filed a duplicate bill in the House.
The most controversial part of the governor’s plan involves changing the inventory tax credit from refundable to nonrefundable. Legislators filed 48 bills, most of which came at the inventory tax credit from different angles.
Businesses each year pay a tax to local governments on the inventory they hold — mostly products for resell or for use in manufacturing. The state reimburses the businesses for every dollar they paid.
Under Jindal’s plan, the businesses would be able to recoup the amount paid up to the state tax liability they owe. Everything else stays in the state’s coffers, which budget writers say could be about $400 million.
“Legislators everywhere have a lot of ideas and a lot of good ones. They’re filing everything they can. The biggest issue we’re trying to work through is when we deal with the inventory tax, how do we deal with the loss of revenue going to the local government?” Adley said.
The business community, the administration and many legislators are all for just doing away with the tax. But many local and parish governments rely on the money as their source of revenues to pay police, fix roads and run local governments.
“Right now, they’re dependent on a tax that is obviously regressive, which other states are moving away from,” said Stephen Waguespack, the former Jindal aide who now heads the influential Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. “We have to find a way to get them to have a different growth pattern. … That conversation is evolving.”
Legislators, local officials and Jindal staffers have been meeting to come up with some way to overcome the impasse. Those meetings will continue next week.
“Any type of major tax reform has so many moving parts and so many mechanics involved,” Revenue Secretary Tim Barfield said. “We’d love a plan that would be less complex. We’re open to all ideas.”
Different scenarios are being discussed from the state providing local governments with a subsidy to letting locals eliminate sales tax exemptions.
“We’re not ruling things out,” Plotkin said. The only caveat is that any tax raised — and that would include removing exemptions — must be offset with a related spending decrease. Jindal will veto any measure that is not what he calls “revenue neutral.”
A raft of bills seeks to increase “sin” taxes on cigarettes, cigars, smoking and smokeless tobacco and alcohol to generate additional state revenues.
State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, a smoker and funeral home owner, wants a more than four-fold increase the cigarette tax — from 36 cents to $1.54 per pack — the national average. It would generate more than $200 million annually.
State Reps. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, and Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, propose a 72-cent increase in the cigarette tax to $1.08. Jackson also wants to double taxes on cigars and smokeless tobacco. State Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, proposes upping the tax on sparkling wine from 42 cents a liter to 92.5 cents.
By the time the deadline hit, 67 proposed constitutional amendments had been filed. Many of them dealt with the changing various credits, but others tackled all manner of issues.
One seeks to have voters declare that an unborn child is a human being from the moment of conception.
Another attempts to bypass Jindal’s objections and get voters to authorize the federal health care law’s Medicaid expansion that would provide insurance for about 200,000 Louisiana residents.
Marsha Shuler, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.