In line at the Louisiana House Dining Hall last week, State Capitol staffers said they’ve never seen so many bills filed on how to deal with a budget crisis.
Traditionally, leadership on fiscal issues is left to whoever is governor, allowing legislators time to focus on banning “droopy drawers” and creating “I’m a Cajun” driver’s licenses.
But this year, as the otherwise occupied Gov. Bobby Jindal visits Iowa, New Hampshire and other states to discuss religious freedom and conservatism, Louisiana legislators have to deal with a $1.6 billion deficit and a plan in which few lawmakers have much faith.
Most of the legislative attention is on Jindal’s proposal to turn “refundable” tax credits in a dozen programs into “nonrefundable” ones. The idea is to allow taxpayers to apply the credit to the amount of taxes they owe, but anything above that amount stays in the state treasury rather than being refunded in the form of a check to the taxpayer.
But Jindal’s plan, particularly if passed without a lot technical wording changes in other parts of the tax code, essentially would allow businesses to carry over to next year or the year after that whatever is not reimbursed the first year, state Rep. Julie Stokes said. “I’m not really comfortable with that,” she added. Economic projections, the Kenner Republican said, give no indication that the fiscal situation will improve to the point that more taxes will be raised next year, so the state would be further kicking the fiscal problems down the road to perdition.
The biggest targeted credit — inventory taxes paid by businesses to local governments and refunded by the state — is the most controversial. This part of the plan is opposed by the business community, which under the plan would not receive the full reimbursement from the state, and by local governments, which are fearful the entire tax will be scrapped, leaving them without enough money.
Dozens of bills promote all sorts of repeal ideas, from abandoning local governments to having the state pay the locals a stipend instead of repaying businesses.
Another handful of measures would raise cigarette taxes. Through a complex, multistep process, Jindal would use the cigarette money to provide extra funding for colleges.
Jindal’s deputy chief of staff, Stafford Palmieri, said the administration would be open to ideas that meet he governor’s criteria: Revenues raised by new taxes that are offset by related reductions in spending. The idea of removing the exemption on some local sales taxes, for instance, would be acceptable if the inventory tax, also considered a local tax, is repealed, she said.
In the alternative, Stokes prefers the idea of taking increased revenues from higher cigarette taxes and sending that money to local governments. It would give the locals a continuing source of revenue. Getting rid of the inventory tax would free up money for the state.
Regardless of how the inventory tax is structured, the majority of the state’s voters would have to approve.
Actually, a lot of the debate this legislative session will be over technical language in the tax code.
One bill would tighten definitions in the inventory tax credit. Currently, the legalese allows parish assessors to tax inventory based on loose interpretations of existing law. The business paying the tax is getting reimbursed anyway, so they really have little incentive to quibble with their assessor over whether this or that object should be included in the tax, Stokes said.
Among the passel of bills filed by state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, is a tweak in tax accounting laws.
In simple terms, big-box retailers often are headquartered in states with no income taxes. They charge their stores in Louisiana millions of dollars for that sign out front, which the local stores can deduct on their returns in this state. The benefits of the Louisiana deduction ultimately go up the line to the corporation, which is not paying income taxes in its home state. What that basically means is that Louisiana’s taxpayers send a check each year to corporate giants for no real reason, he said.
Adley’s bill would generate up to about $300 million simply by changing the deduction’s wording. “That’s not a tax increase. It’s a collection issue,” he said.
Maybe in the end, Jindal’s benign neglect of the state budget crisis will have a lasting impact on Louisiana.
“We have wanted legislative independence for a long time, and right now we’ve got it because the Governor’s Office is long gone, it appears to me and most of us,” Adley said. “If this is going to be fixed, we’re going to have to fix it.”