Political Horizons: Politics long part of tax assessments

by mark ballard

mballard@theadvocate.com

All the hubbub a couple weeks ago sounded familiar to Frank Simoneaux.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera had reported that the Tax Commission’s lax oversight of parish assessors may have resulted in many neighbors paying different property taxes for very similar homes.

Simoneaux, the former chairman of the state Ethics Board, thumbed through old legal opinions and last week came across a 1974 appellate court decision. The findings were nearly identical to Purpera’s and a court order — ignored, then as now, but still enforceable after 39 years — demanded the Louisiana Tax Commission get on the stick and start insisting parish assessors appraise the values of homes and businesses with “uniformity and equality.”

“I saw it and I said, ‘Wow, is this déjà vu or what?’ ” Simoneaux said.

The case, filed in June 1967, pitted labor leader Victor Bussie, on behalf of working class property owners, businessmen and others, against Blanche Long, the widow of Earl K. Long and chairwoman of the Tax Commission. Bussie claimed that the process of assessing property tax rates for everyday homeowners was far too political and had been for decades.

Like a fugue in a symphony, Purpera’s July 15 audit results repeat the theme heard in 1974 and in earlier lawsuits and audits and analysis by groups, such as the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, over the past half-century. Just to underscore the point, these reports from the past often were followed by the comments of lobbyists for business and industry, who placed the blame of property tax inequities on political alliances watering down the Tax Commission’s supervisory authority over the assessors.

Several days after Purpera’s audit, Dan Juneau, head of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, wrote that this time the rubber hit the road when Gov. Bobby Jindal named tax commissioners more beholden to the assessors who want to roll back reforms instituted by Gov. Kathleen Blanco between 2004 and 2008.

Blanco recalls that upon taking office she wanted to tone down the politics that were enmeshed in the way local authorities decided how to tax people and businesses in Louisiana.

“We did some deceptively simple things,” Blanco said last week, like expanding the number of tax commissioners from three to five, and thereby making it more difficult to influence decisions. She also instituted more transparency by posting the assessments online so that individuals can compare what they pay to what their neighbors pay.

As the head of the Louisiana Assessors’ Association, Glenn Waguespack acknowledges the politics, but says the truth is more complex.

True, back in the day, assessors were local chieftains who, along with sheriffs, controlled jobs and made decisions that had immediate impact on individuals. They could — and did — exercise that power on behalf of statewide politicians. These days, assessors operate under more-stringent laws and wider scrutiny, he said.

Waguespack, who is assessor for St. James Parish, defends the current commissioners. He says one key difference between Blanco’s tax commission and Jindal’s is the number of lawyers on staff. Hearings and procedures were stricter and followed a more prescribed protocol during the Blanco years. The Jindal tax commission got rid of its inhouse legal office and the hearings are now a little more relaxed, though procedures are still followed, he said.

Back in 1974, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal decision accepted that the tax commission “lacks staff, personnel and funds to accomplish the gigantic task,” then rejected that argument saying, the job is the job and that while a court can’t order another branch of government to spend the money necessary, it hoped the Legislature would “perform its duty.”

Charles Abel, the Tax Commission’s administrator, says Purpera’s audit came out as his staff was handling about 1,100 taxpayer appeals of their assessments, about a thousand of which come from Orleans Parish. Unsurprisingly appeals go up when parish assessors finish their periodic reassessments, he said.

Abel says the key difference between this spike in appeals and the last one back in 2007 is that now the tax commission’s budget is $3.8 million — down from $5.2 million during Blanco’s last year — and the office has four fewer workers.

Appraising property is more estimation than arithmetic, Waguespack said. Still, some of the variables in the calculations could have firmer numbers, if the Legislature would buy computerized databases for every parish, he said.

“It’s easy to blame it all on politics,” Waguespack said. “But there’s a lot more to it than just politics.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com