Hidden in the state’s fine print is your right to buy a beer at a professional sporting event without paying state sales taxes.
That same tax-free status applies to Mardi Gras beads, gold coins costing more than $1,000, human-tissue transplants, breast pumps for feeding babies, funeral hearses, Girl Scout Cookies, something called polyroll tubing (it’s used for irrigation on farms), and nearly 200 other items.
Sales tax exemptions and exclusions cost the state about $2.5 billion a year. Most of that benefits everyday people who can buy groceries and prescription drugs and pay electric bills without kicking in the additional 4 percent in sales taxes. Several charities don’t have to pay sales taxes, and neither do government agencies.
But that leaves about 96 exemptions that are grouped into the “other” category, which state Rep. Julie Stokes calculates to have cost the state about $769 million in lost revenues last year.
A certified public accountant, the Kenner Republican is the kind of person who plays with spreadsheets for fun. She carries a laptop in an oversized purse that has all the state’s hundreds of tax exemptions that she groups and sorts to support the point she’s making at the moment.
Like many legislators, Stokes has been looking for ways to fill a $1.6 billion shortage of the revenues necessary to pay for government services in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Gov. Bobby Jindal has his own plan, but it is filled with contingencies and doesn’t fill many legislators with confidence.
But $769 million, Stokes says, could go a long way toward filling that revenue hole.
Or maybe not.
Nobody seems to know much about these exemptions and exclusions: Why were they granted? What are they worth?
“You can’t do any meaningful streamlining and reform without understanding what the individual tax exemptions are worth,” Stokes said.
Robert Scott, president of the 65-year-old government policy group Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, agrees, calling the exemptions “a big mystery box.” State government hasn’t been able to track how these tax breaks are used. “It would be very difficult” to do so, he said.
Back in 2012, a temporary legislative committee called the Revenue Study Commission took a stab by looking at all the various exemptions Louisiana allowed but no longer had a handle on. The commission took a day, maybe two, to thumb through the sales tax breaks.
A couple were drafted years ago in language that fit only one company, like Royale Airlines that went out of business 25 years ago or Grantham University that moved to Kansas after the 2005 hurricanes. Both tax breaks are still on the books. Another was aimed at vintage World War II planes, but the wording ended up also exempting taxes on the sales executive jets constructed in the 1980s.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, offered at one hearing that a fan willing to plop down $8 for a beer at a professional football game probably wouldn’t blanche at paying 32 cents more, which would allow the state to get a taste, too.
Because nobody came to the hearing to defend the tax break, commission members talked amongst themselves about the wisdom of charging Little League fans an additional 4 percent for T-shirts or whatever, while Saints fans could guzzle $8 beer tax-free.
The commission turned to Ray Tangney, who for 30 years at the Louisiana Department of Revenue was jokingly called “the Tax Historian.”
Tangney, who now works in the private sector, recalled that back in the mid-1980s, the first time the New Orleans Saints threatened to move, the state responded by allowing the privately owned football team to keep the money made at the concession stands, without charging sales taxes, in the publicly financed Superdome.
The legal wording later allowed the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Triple AAA baseball franchise, and the Cajundome in Lafayette to also forego collecting sales taxes.
A couple of the sales tax breaks were changed, but for the most part, the situation is the same as it ever was.
Last week, LSU economist James Richardson, who is on a team studying the state’s fiscal structure, mentioned the mystery exemptions in his presentation. He said the state needs to seriously upgrade its sales tax system.
This being Louisiana, that likely means the next step will be another legislative commission. That’s good for figuring out the processes of collecting and disbursing sales taxes.
But for the unknown exemptions and exclusions, maybe Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue articulated the best idea when flippantly suggested suspending them all, then see who shows up angry at the State Capitol. His quip got a laugh from his colleagues.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.