The clash between New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council over a proposed new tax to pay for senior services may not have ended with the council's vote last month to put the measure on the March 30 ballot.
In addition to publicly criticizing the idea, Cantrell is now considering the unusual step of requesting that the ballot measure be killed by the Louisiana Bond Commission, a state board that has the final say on what tax measures are put in front of voters.
Lobbying the commission would represent an escalation in Cantrell's fight with council members over the millage. The commission's role in authorizing tax elections is normally just a procedural step, without conflict.
Cantrell, in an interview last week, continued to stump against the 2-mill tax, which would not take effect until 2020 tax bills.
Any tax proposal coming from the city should not just support seniors but should be designed as a "public health" measure that would also provide funding for family services and mental health care in a "holistic" approach, Cantrell said.
And money generated by such a proposal should go to the city itself, without strings, she said.
The council's plan would direct the $6.6 million the proposed tax would generate a year to the city but would specify the council wants it to go to the independent Council on Aging.
For a tax proposal to make it this far in the process without the support of both branches of city government is rare. But the matter could become even more unusual, with the Cantrell administration now considering ways to ensure that the Bond Commission hears her critique before it votes on the issue.
Asked directly whether she would lobby the commission to reject the tax, Cantrell said, "The position (opposing the tax) I've stated publicly already will be the one that I stand by."
If Cantrell does try to sway the commission, she would put the agency in the rare position of having to deal with conflicting requests from opposite ends of a city government.
The commission, made up of statewide officials and lawmakers, does have broad discretionary authority to decide if a measure will make it to the voters, according to its staff.
It's exceedingly rare for the body to reject an issue because a local official opposes it. But then, so is a local government so divided over the wisdom of proposing a tax.
The council's bucking of the mayor’s recommendation was seen as another sign of its willingness to challenge Cantrell, a former council member, on key issues — a dynamic rarely seen under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, though common under some other former mayors.
State Rep. Neil Abramson, a New Orleans lawmaker who sits on the Bond Commission and serves as Cantrell's legislative leader, said he had not had any discussions with the mayor about urging the board to reject the tax.
But he said he was aware of Cantrell's concerns and that he would have to discuss the issue with both sides before deciding how he would vote.
Regardless of the merits of the tax itself, Abramson said he would encourage the city not to schedule the vote for March, when it would likely be the only measure on the ballot. That would require the city to foot the full cost of the election, roughly $500,000, he said.
Rescheduling the election would require the council to revote on the proposal.
Another New Orleans lawmaker on the Bond Commission, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, said he was against setting a precedent that a local measure could be derailed by the commission before it gets to the ballot.
"I think it's a bad idea, generally speaking, to let the Bond Commission weigh in on how cities do things," Morrell said.
Any move by Cantrell to block the tax could also face opposition from the agency at the center of the squabble, the Council on Aging.
Its director, Howard Rodgers, said the agency needs the proposed tax to expand its meal deliveries to more than 1,200 seniors on a waiting list and to more efficiently operate its senior centers. The agency receives about $1.2 million from the state and is line to get another $1.4 million from the city's general fund next year.
“There has been no significant increase in funding for the senior citizens agencies in Louisiana since the ’80s,” Rodgers said.
While the council has agreed with that rationale and has said voters should get to decide on whether to give the agency more funding, Cantrell has argued that the city’s current allocation to the Council on Aging is enough.
A significant percentage of city tax dollars already is dedicated directly to agencies outside of city government, including hospitality and sports groups, and Cantrell says the city should be looking to cut back — not worsen — that problem.
In line with that approach, Cantrell has said she would consider pushing for a “public health” millage in the next few years to support her new Youth and Families Office and other agencies engaged in addressing homelessness, violent crime and other problems she has labeled a “public health crisis.”
She has said she would consider making such a pitch in 2020 or later, after she has a chance to demonstrate that she can make the best use of the taxes the city already generates.
“My goal is to prove to the public that we are doing the most good with their dollars, and to demonstrate a track record of results ... so when that time comes, then we will be in a better position to possibly have that (millage) pass,” she said.
Some council members have other ideas.
Councilman Jason Williams has said it's important that there be a guaranteed funding source for the Council on Aging and suggested that a funding increase within the city budget for 2019, beyond the $1.4 million requested by Cantrell. could be appropriate as well.
A representative from Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s office said she would be open to avoiding new taxes on city residents by using money from the city’s general fund instead.
Other council members said they want to let the voters decide.
Councilman Jay Banks, for example, said he personally is against the idea of a new tax. But he said residents should get a chance to voice their preference.
“I would never say the public shouldn’t weigh in,” Banks said. “I don’t know if they would look at the problem differently if the problem was already addressed” in the city budget.