Bouquets To Steve Carter, Brickbats To Frank Hoffman And Sam Jenkins For 2019 Session Bills

The 2019 legislative session is about a month away, but we’re beginning to see the ideas various legislators have for bills to file when things get started at the Louisiana capitol on April 8.

Perhaps the most consequential ideas for this year’s session is the package of bills being prepared by Rep. Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge), who has been the head of a legislative task force on car insurance rates. As discussed here last month Talbot is readying a number of tort-reform bills the insurance industry and others have discussed which would make Louisiana a more inviting place for auto insurers to do business, married to a mandatory rate reduction as a sweetener for those of Talbot’s colleagues who resist attempts at tort reform. Talbot might not pass his car insurance reform package, but he’ll exact a rather high political cost to its opponents if he doesn’t.

But a piece at the Baton Rouge Advocate yesterday noted a pair of other ideas which also won’t likely pass that Talbot’s fellow Republicans are working on – one an excellent idea which should have already been put in place, and the other a foolish government intrusion better left alone.

Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Steve Carter says he wants to challenge a sacred cow by giving local jurisdictions more sway over the homestead exemption, which has been politically untouchable since enacted in 1934.

And former smoker Frank Hoffmann, the West Monroe Republican representative in charge of the House Health and Welfare committee, wants to raise to 21 years the legal age for smoking in Louisiana.

As the headline says, Carter deserves a lot of credit for trying to set the homestead exemption free. That has needed doing in Louisiana for a long time – in 1934, when the homestead exemption for Louisiana property tax was established, it was set at a uniform rate statewide. That was a classic case of Huey Long-style governmental excess, and it had the insidious effect of robbing local governments of their autonomy from the state capitol.

That effect was long-lasting, and very deleterious. With the homestead exemption set statewide at $75,000, rural and poor parishes like Tensas, St. Helena, Madison and East Carroll, where the median household income is under $30,000 per year according to the U.S. Census, a $75,000 homestead exemption means vast swaths of their private residences won’t incur much or any property tax at all. Go look at the Zillow listings in Tensas Parish, and while you’ll see some properties on Lake Bruin which carry a respectable price tag you’ll also see more than a few under $75,000. That’s a lot rarer in an Ascension, Jefferson or St. Tammany, where median household incomes are near or above $60,000.

Given that dichotomy, what makes sense is to “set the exemption free” – as in, let each parish choose what homestead exemption makes sense based on its tax base and real estate reality. If East Carroll Parish, for example, were to drop its homestead exemption to $50,000, it could likely raise several hundred thousand dollars, or more, in property taxes which would enable that parish to draw less from the state’s coffers to fund police or fire protection, or schools. And in Jefferson Parish, where talk of raising the homestead exemption to $100,000 or more has been pervasive for years, setting the exemption free would likely result in it moving in the opposite direction from the poorer parishes.

Remember, businesses pay some 80 percent of the property tax burden in Louisiana. That’s very different from how it works in Texas, and it’s pretty obvious to anyone with functioning senses that Texas has a more productive tax climate and more accountable local government than Louisiana does.

So Carter’s proposal is long overdue, and despite the sacred-cow nature of Huey Long’s homestead exemption we can’t thank him enough for raising the issue in the upcoming session, particularly in an election year.

We can’t say that for Hoffmann, who represents the single most Republican district in Louisiana (it voted 90 percent for John Kennedy and 87 percent for Donald Trump in 2016). We’re no particular fans of smoking by any means, but if you can get your head blown off by an IED in Afghanistan serving your country at 18 years old the last thing we want to do is deny you an opportunity to put a cancer stick in your mouth. It’s scandalous that somebody who pretends to be for limited government would waste the legislature’s time trying to push the smoking age in the state to 21. This does absolutely nothing for the cost of health care, because 20-year old smokers aren’t the ones coming down with lung cancer, and to the extent that it would actually change anyone’s behavior it actually costs the state money given the confiscatory tax revenue cigarettes generate.

Not to mention that the 21-year old drinking age has proven two things – first, that it doesn’t stop 18-year olds from drinking all that well, and second, that to the extent it does affect their habits it pushes them into other substances to abuse. Like smoking weed, for example, which is well and truly illegal and yet nobody cares. Does anybody think that making cigarettes illegal for 18-year olds won’t push those kids in the same direction?

That’s an uncommonly stupid bill and let’s hope Hoffmann is dissuaded from wasting the legislature’s time with it.

Hoffmann’s isn’t the worst bill coming this session, of course. That honor belongs to Shreveport Democrat Sam Jenkins, who wants to create the crime of “aggressive driving”

A Louisiana motorist who breaks three or more rules of the road could be arrested for “aggressive driving” if a bill proposed for this year’s session becomes law.

House Bill 6 by Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport, lists a dozen traffic offenses, such as speeding, failing to use a turn signal, following too closely and failing to yield the right-of-way. If the bill becomes law, a driver who commits three or more during a single trip could face a fine of up to $500, imprisonment for up to six months, or both, and be required to take a “court-approved driver improvement program.”

Offenders would also lose their driver’s license for six months, though they would be able to get a “restricted license” if losing driving privileges entirely would threaten their livelihood.

Conviction for a subsequent offense within three years would double the maximum penalties to a $1,000 fine and imprisonment for a year.

Law enforcement would have discretion over whether to make an arrest or issue a summons.

If you want to know what the impetus for that bill is, beyond Jenkins just venting his spleen over some of the state’s worst drivers, it’s that “court-approved driver improvement program.” If you look hard enough you can usually find the scam behind all of the bad bills at the Louisiana legislature, and this is it for Jenkins’ bill – pass it and the cops will be writing people up for “aggressive driving” on a constant basis, and that’ll force them to pay driving schools a $300 tribute for the privilege of wasting a Saturday watching Death On The Highway in a classroom, while the owners of those driving schools make a fortune off mostly poor people.

That’s been part of the DWI industry in Louisiana for quite some time, but with the advent of Uber soaking up a large number of the people who would otherwise be filling those classrooms it’s become important to find something else to fill up the pipeline. Jenkins’ bill which would make it a jailable offense not to use a turn signal is just the thing.

It’s especially obnoxious to see this bill coming from a black Democrat legislator, because the people who are most susceptible to this charge are likely going to be poor and black, and there is already a well-known crisis in the state’s black community by which traffic tickets and their effects are so often devastating. When you have little or no disposable income to begin with, a traffic ticket you can’t afford to pay will often mean your inability to renew your driver’s license or maintain your car insurance, and that can affect your ability to hold a job or do other productive things with your life. Breaking people out of that vicious cycle ought to be the aim of state legislators representing areas of the state which are predominantly poor and black; instead, we so often see the Sam Jenkinses of the world trying to victimize them even more with bills like this.

Carter’s bill seeking real reform this session stands far above such squalid attempts at legislation. Thanks to him for trying to improve governance rather than imposing more of it on us.

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