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Does Jindal increases ‘taxes’ as he cuts taxes?

20th June 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
The Louisiana Weekly

Bobby Jindal says he is against growing government by revenue — supports tax cuts, opposes tax increases. Yet, the governor has spent most of his time in the current legislative session, working behind the scenes to increase the amount that government charges the public—and actively fighting the largest potential tax cut in Louisiana history.

On the surface, the governor appears the model of a tax-cutter, even facing down members of his own party. His aides point to the Jindal’s veto of a renewal of a four cent a pack sales tax on cigarettes. Since it was an existing tax, the renewal picked up some GOP votes, enough to reach the 2/3 threshold on the legislation’s initial passage.

The governor vetoed the renewal with alacrity and began actively lobbying GOP members not to vote for an override — something that would have required the same number of votes as the tax’s original passage. Filled with threats, most Republicans caved. Whereas the initial State House vote in May was 70-30, last Thursday, June 16, renewal of the cigarette tax on got 58 votes. Eleven defected despite the $12-million-hole that the veto put in the healthcare budget.

Republicans like Rep. Kay Katz of Monroe who argued vehemently last month that this was not a tax increase, as the four cents are a current levied tax, flipped. Rep. Tom McVea, R-Jackson, said he couldn’t support the override, even though “I don’t agree with him on this issue. But I don’t want to embarrass the governor.”

Jindal won on this issue, like he has been victorious on his equally vigilant efforts to raise the amount charged to the public in order to fund government.

In some dictionaries, that sentence would the be explanation of the meaning of the phrase “to raise taxes”. In Louisiana, however, the governor uses the euphemism to increase “fees.”

Court fees will increase thanks to the governor signing House Bill 556 by Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, into law. It increases from $2 to $3 the amount assessed in criminal court costs for technology. The current two dollars funds a trial court information management program, while the added dollar will go to a juvenile court case management system.

Lisa Newton of the Legislative Fiscal Office, the agency that assesses the dollar impact of bills, estimates the increase will generate about $701,000 a year.

Jindal likewise signed into law House Bill 52 by Rep. Reed Henderson, D-Violet, to raise the fee on all non-parking violations handled in New Orleans Traffic Court. The bill authorizes the court to raise its costs to $30 to match other parishes that have that maximum. Traffic Court officials said they now collect $10 in court costs.

The costs could be assessed on individuals who enter pleas of guilty or no-contest or are convicted after a trial for non-parking violations, and those who forfeit bonds.

The governor also seems poised to sign a renewal of a $1 fee on state driver’s licenses to pay for litter abatement and law enforcement programs.

However, quite a few members of the State House of Representatives knotted the apparent hypocrisy. The members did not give their final 81-12 concurrence on the legislation until after the measure was compared to the four-cent cigarette sales tax renewal.

Jindal has said that he does not considered tuition and fee increases the same as tax renewals or increases.

People do not have to go to college or use certain judicial services. Then again, people can choose not to smoke as well.

“Why are we renewing this?,” asked House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge. “That’s not an increase?”

“I’m trying to understand the difference between this one and maybe some others,” Greene said. “To me, it’s a renewal.”

University Tuition is skyrocketing as well on Jindal’s watch, to the tune of five percent. The Joint Budget Committee approved a $37 million tuition increase across public-college campuses this fall that had been stalled previously by senators.

Senators on the committee voted 8-5 for the cost hike on students, while the House members voted 13-4 for it. The governor is poised to sign. It is true that over $85 million in college tuition and fee increases remain stalled in the House amid strong opposition. Still, that did not stop opponents called the tuition hike a tax on students. Supporters, like the governor, defend the increases as a means to fill in budget gaps at colleges after several rounds of state budget cuts.

But, a tobacco tax renewal that would likewise fill the hole in the health care budget is unacceptable?

This somewhat schizophrenic attitude has best been demonstrated by the governor’s covert, but effective, campaign to kill a repeal of the state income tax over 10 years.

It is not the first time that Jindal attempted to stop an income tax cut. His aides worked feverishly in 2008 to stop or slow down the repeal of the Stelly income tax hikes. Only when they passed both chambers over the governor’s objections did he embrace the idea and sign the legislation.

History seemed to be on the verge of repeating itself on Thursday, June 16, when a repeal of the state income tax without conditions appeared ready to pass out of the Louisiana House of Repre­sentatives.

Senate Bill 259 had passed to the House Ways and Means Com­mittee with a 10-year phase out of the Corporate and Personal Income taxes, but only if a committee, established by the legislation, found the $2.7 billion to cut.

Hunter Greene, the Chair of Ways and Means, took out the committee—and the corporate income cuts—to make a simple two billion dollar repeal. There were those legitimately supported a committee on the basis of paying for the tax. So much so, that Rep. Chris Roy Jr. restored the committee on the floor of the House in a 58-35 vote.

No legislator wanted to vote against an income tax cut when they had to face the voters this October. But, they also did not want to deal with the budgetary consequences either. However, Greene called their bluff.

Whereas Roy had said on the House floor, “If we do away with personal income tax, we’ll have to do a lot of cutting or find another revenue source.” Green replied that Louisiana is at competitive disadvantage to Texas and Florida by having an income tax. Only by repealing the tax first would the legislature have the courage to find cuts — or revenue enhancements — to make up the difference.

Greene said objected to Roy’s amendment because with it, the bill “doesn’t have any teeth.” He added measure makes the legislation just “a study resolution.”

Greene’s comment was inadvertently confirmed by Roy a few minutes later, when the Ways and Means Chair was asked how could the budget make up the difference from the lost revenue. Greene replied that $7.1 billion in tax exemptions that are currently granted could be repealed.

Whether true of not (and the assertion has been hotly debated), Roy replied to the Baton Rouge Republican, “t’s been suggested that if we try to do away with exemptions, that’s raising taxes.” The Alexandria Democrat used Gov. Bobby Jindal pledge made early in the session that he would veto any tax increases, as ammunition. And it was not an accidental comment. He was sending a message.

Greene sought to strip Roy’s amendment on the floor. Insiders say that the Ways and Means Chair had a narrow majority to succeed, until gubernatorial aides began working the floor.

When the vote came, Greene’s attempt to strip Roy’s amendment failed 46-46. Jindal’s lobbying forced the tie, and therefore the bill stands as amended — a commission that can only recommend.

Greene pledged to take another shot at a “clean” bill as the B.R. Republican calls it. But, the delay means that he has less than a week to send the legislation back to the Senate for conference and possible approval. Plenty of time for Jindal to delay there, should Greene succeed.

The governor did not want a straight income tax repeal to come to his desk. Many legislators have made legitimate budgetary reasons to oppose the measure, but considering the governor’s outspoken opposition to taxes of any sort, should not Jindal cheer passage of an income tax phase-out?

Not if one sees the many ways in which the governor is actively seeking more revenue for the state, rather than less — despite the impression given to the media. If fees are included, net “taxes” have jumped considerably this year.

This article originally published in the June 20, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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