In the halls of the legislature and on the steps of City Hall, in advertisements, social media and meetings with the press, Baton Rouge leaders are still at work trying to manage the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, after local giant ExxonMobil failed to secure a pair of tax breaks.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome called scores of people in the business community on Monday to City Hall, where she and her guests praised the corporation’s commitments to local investment, philanthropy and job training.
None uttered the phrase “industrial tax exemption” until prompted by reporters, but the timing was clear: Less than a week before, faith-based nonprofit Together Baton Rouge gathered at the opposite side of the building to celebrate the parish school board’s rejection of two ITEP proposals that prompted ExxonMobil to pull similar requests before they made it to the Metro Council.
On Monday, authorities with Baton Rouge Community College, the local United Way, and Community Coffee all praised ExxonMobil, whose officials attended the gathering but did not speak.
“Baton Rouge is open for business … open for growing business,” Broome said. “Baton Rouge supports ExxonMobil, who has been a tremendous corporate citizen.”
In an interview Monday, Together Baton Rouge organizer Edgar Cage also commended ExxonMobil for its philanthropy. The group doesn’t oppose ITEP applications in support of expansions at their facilities, Cage said. However, the group will continue to oppose efforts to secure tax breaks for maintenance work and other routine expenses, he said.
When she ran for office in 2016, the mayor campaigned on setting limits for ITEP but backed off shortly upon taking office. She did not take any hard stances Monday on ExxonMobil’s applications but spoke approvingly of the Metro Council's ITEP guidelines, which will determine when an exemption is warranted.
The problem will be assuring investors that the guidelines will be observed and not subject to the whims of the moment, Baton Rouge Area Chamber President Adam Knapp said in an interview.
Following Broome’s event, he made his way over to the Baton Rouge Press Club, where he fielded questions on the matter.
“Anti-business rhetoric … really is alarming,” Knapp said.
It’s a sentiment BRAC also emphasized in an open letter to the community, published in a full-page ad in The Advocate’s Sunday edition. The local ITEP guidelines might not be perfect, but the Chamber likes them well enough. The problem will be making sure the rules are strictly and uniformly enforced, not given to interpretation or political sway. The School Board rejected one ExxonMobil ITEP application even though it met all their requirements, Knapp charged, a charge that TBR contests.
However, BRAC is still working to improve the existing system, he said. Elsewhere, state politicians are working to revert the program to state control.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, and state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, on Monday announced they are drafting a bill to revoke local authority in granting industrial tax exemptions.
“The decision by EBR School Board to remove ITEP incentives from ExxonMobil is one of the most short-sided (sic) actions I have ever seen from an elected body,” White wrote in a statement.
A response from the left was swift.
“It’s unfortunate that one company is told no once and now the narrative is out there that Baton Rouge is not ‘open for business,’” state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, wrote on Facebook.
James proposes ITEP applicants should disclose more information about tax credits, exemptions, deductions, rebates and other benefits.
Another issue still being hashed out is whether there is a way to streamline the process so companies are automatically accepted if their ITEP request meets a local taxing authority’s requirements or rejected if they do not, Knapp said. Currently, bodies like the Metro Council may vote each item up or down; if they take no action, the application is automatically approved.