A Baton Rouge state senator has asked the Louisiana attorney general to weigh in on the constitutionality of East Baton Rouge Parish public bus system’s property tax passed in April by voters in Baton Rouge and Baker.
State Sen. Dan Claitor wrote in his July 5 letter that the Capital Area Transit System tax election “runs afoul of the right to equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions.”
“As much as citizens would like a properly funded and accountable service, a constitutionally flawed method of obtaining funding for the service cannot be ignored,” he wrote.
CATS Board President Jared Loftus said in a statement he thinks Claitor is “merely trying to undermine the voters decision.” Claitor was an opponent of corresponding CATS legislation that would have revamped the CATS board authority and makeup.
“We have always believed and still believe that CATS acted within its constitutional authority to call an election in the city limits of Baker, Zachary and Baton Rouge,” Loftus said.
“This was affirmed by the state Bond Commission, which the attorney general or his designee serve on, when they authorized the election and by the secretary of state when he approved the ballot proposition and notice of election,” Loftus said.
CATS officials proposed a 10.6-mill property tax to expand and improve bus service, generating an additional $16 million annually for its $12 million budget.
The tax was proposed for property owners in the Baker, Zachary and Baton Rouge city limits.
Voters in Zachary, however, rejected the tax. The tax was not proposed for property owners in Central, the fourth municipality in the parish.
While the majority of CATS bus routes will serve roadways within the limits of the tax paying cities, some areas outside the city limits will also benefit from the service.
“The new CATS tax unfairly benefits persons in the outlying CATS service area at the expense of those owning property within Baton Rouge and Baker city limits,” Claitor wrote.
Claitor also said the April 21 election “disenfranchised many affected taxpayers” who own property that will be taxed in the city limits but who could not vote because their residences were outside the city limits.
Claitor offered the 1974 court case Louisiana & Arkansas Railway Co. v. Goslin as a legal precedent, where residents of a seven-parish area were taxed by the Red Waterway District for waterway improvements.
The plaintiffs claimed that three neighboring parishes would receive all the same benefits from the tax-funded improvements without the same tax obligation
The Louisiana Supreme Court overturned an earlier dismissal of the claim, calling it a violation of equal protection.
“If these facts are correct ... we agree with the plaintiffs that the exclusion of the three named parishes does constitute an arbitrary discrimination violative of the equal protection clause of the Federal Constitution,” the state Supreme Court wrote.
The plaintiffs in the Goslin case ultimately lost because they could not prove their allegations, but Claitor said the court’s intent was made clear regarding its position on that taxing scenario.
Woody Jenkins, chairman of the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party, was a vocal opponent of the CATS tax and said he agrees with Claitor’s interpretation of the Goslin case.
“I would think the Goslin case seems so applicable here,” Jenkins said.
“There’s an attempt here to tax people inside city limits for services outside city limits.”
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has received the opinion and assigned it, said Amanda Larkins, a spokeswoman for the office.
She said the request will be answered but she could not say when.
Attorney general opinions are not legally binding, however, they are sometimes requested ahead of expected litigation to get an idea of how a judge may rule.
In May, the state Attorney General’s Office provided the opinion that the CATS tax is homestead exempt, despite CATS officials’ presenting it as ineligible for the exemption.
Parish Assessor Brian Wilson said he would abide by the Attorney General’s opinion and apply homestead exemptions for the CATS tax.
Jenkins said since CATS is a state agency, it has more reason to abide by the opinion of the state office.
“The attorney general is really the chief legal adviser of the state, and CATS is a state agency,” Jenkins said.
“If your lawyer says what you’re doing is unconstitutional, then you may be personally liable if you don’t stop.”
Taxbusters co-chairwoman Elizabeth Dent said she applauds Claitor’s request, adding that she expects the CATS tax to be considered unconstitutional.
“Obviously Taxbusters’ due diligence was closer to the truth, when we disclosed that the CATS tax lacked details, that the tax was unconstitutional, the homestead exemption did apply, costs too much and lasted too long,” she said.