BEAM: Rocky Week For The Tax Swap Plan

The fate of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to eliminate state income taxes is in limbo as members of the Louisiana Legislature convene at noon Monday for their fiscal session. The governor’s front men continue to insist all of their tax plans are on track. However, you can’t help but wonder whether they are simply trying to convince themselves that all is still rosy in their increasingly troubled political world.

A poll showing that Jindal’s job approval rating had slipped from 61 percent a year ago to 38 percent in March was dismissed by the Jindal team, but it appears to have motivated an unexpected streak of independence in the legislative branch.

The governor’s tax elimination plan would do away with individual and corporate income taxes. The current 4 percent state sales tax would be raised to 6.25 percent in order to make up some of the $3 billion in lost income tax revenues. State sales taxes would also be applied to previously untaxed services in order to raise additional funds. An increase in the cigarette tax would bring in millions more.

Local governments also levy sales taxes, and their average approaching 5 percent would put the total sales tax at or above 11 percent, highest in the country. Another troubling feature of the plan is the additional $500 million burden it puts on Louisiana businesses.

Presidents, governors and other political leaders can downplay polls, but they resonate with lower level politicians and the public at large. Legislators, in particular, are closer to the voters who elect them, and they can sense how the political winds are blowing back home.

It was obvious something was amiss when the House Ways and Means Committee cancelled a hearing on the governor’s 11-bill tax package. That is where all state tax measures originate before going to the full House and then to the state Senate. Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, is chairman of that committee, and there were rumors he — like others before him — was going to lose his job for failing to do the governor’s bidding.

Not so, said Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. Kleckley insisted he and Robideaux had a good working relationship. The consensus is that the votes weren’t there to approve the plan.

In other surprising developments, Kleckley said hearings on the income tax package wouldn’t take place until lawmakers got reliable tax information from their own Legislative Fiscal Office. And the speaker — a businessman himself — said it would be hard for him to support the $500 million additional tax burden on businesses.

“There’s so many confusing, so many conflicting stories on the numbers, we think it’s very, very important to get those numbers correct,” Kleckley said during a pre-session lunch with members of the capital media.

Kleckley then got a phone call from longtime friend Paul Rainwater, the governor’s chief of staff, according to Tyler Bridges, who covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens, a website operating in New Orleans. Rainwater wanted to know why the Ways and Means hearing had been cancelled.

“We need precise and exact numbers, and until then we’re not moving forward on the bill,” Kleckley told Rainwater.

Bridges said Kleckley talked about the phone conversation two days later and said, “It was probably the shortest phone conversation I’ve ever had with Paul Rainwater.”

Why this sudden streak of independence from Kleckley and others? Bridges quoted Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, a member of Kleckley’s legislative delegation, who said release of the Southern Media and Opinion poll would show legislators beginning to distance themselves from the governor.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, the No. 2 man in the House, expressed it best when he said Kleckley’s stance is an indication of independence by the Legislature.

“That’s a good thing,” Leger said. “It doesn’t mean that we won’t support the governor. It says that our views are just as important as the governor’s. That hasn’t always been apparent in the past.”

Vic Stelly, a former state legislator and Geymann’s predecessor, told Bridges, “I think he (Kleckley) was tired of being out on a limb. I guess Chuck said enough is enough.”

Most longtime observers of the Louisiana political scene caution residents not to read too much into these latest developments on Jindal’s tax proposal. It may be on life support, but isn’t dead yet.

Lanny Keller, who writes editorials for The Advocate of Baton Rouge, said, “Jindal, too, still has cards to play, with a political organization and war chest that can generate emails and other backing for the tax plan.”

Kleckley and many others believe elimination of the income tax is a good idea, but think there may be other ways to do it.

“There’s a lot of support for doing away with the income tax,” Kleckley said. “The question is, ‘How do you replace the personal income tax when you get rid of it?’ ”

There is one thing we do know at this point. The alternatives being offered by Jindal aren’t the right answer. They put the tax burden on the wrong people and could cause additional damage to vital state services if the projected revenues don’t materialize.

This newfound legislative independence is a positive sign, and we hope it continues. It shows that lawmakers are beginning to realize they were sent to Baton Rouge to represent the people back home and not those temporary residents in the governor’s mansion.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].

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