Amnesty punishments softened

Legislators agreed Friday to soften legislation so a financial hammer is not lowered on taxpayers who refuse to settle their tax disputes through a proposed amnesty program.

Baton Rouge lawyer Chris Dicharry told the state Senate Finance Committee that House Bill 456 contained a clause to double the penalties for people who do not participate in the amnesty program.

Dicharry said the language would unfairly punish people when the courts rule against them in good faith disputes. “People are going to hide from amnesty, and they’re going to try to lay low,” he said.

Without any objection, the committee stripped the sentence and sent the legislation to the full House.

“I agree with you. I think it’s unconstitutional and unfair,” state Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, told Dicharry about the troublesome clause.

The House advanced HB456 as part of a package of bills designed to generate additional money for a $25 billion state spending plan that funds health care, schools and other public expenses.

The amnesty program is supposed to encourage thousands of taxpayers with outstanding state tax debts to settle with the state.

Taxpayers would be given two years to do so. In the first year, all penalties and interest would be forgiven if tax bills are paid in full. In the second year, a 50 percent discount would be offered on penalties and interest.

The Senate and the House seem to agree on the amnesty program as well as House Bill 653, which would shave the amount of money from state sales taxes that businesses are allowed to keep as a reward for collecting the revenue.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, expressed amazement Friday that the vendors’ compensation program exists in state law when HB653 went before the Senate Finance Committee.

“Why do we pay them in the first place?” Claitor asked state Sen. Neil Riser, who was handling the bill.

Retailers get to keep a portion of sales tax collections. Oil and gas companies do not get to keep a portion of severance tax collections.

Riser, R-Columbia, said that was perplexing to him as well. “We pay some. Don’t pay others,” he said.

The committee advanced HB653 after making some minor changes.

One alteration was to remove a link the House created to ensure the budget bills fall like dominoes if one bill fails. Now each bill would stand on its own.

The two chambers are far apart on some issues.

The Louisiana House purged one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars that Gov. Bobby Jindal wanted to use for funding higher education. The Senate Finance Committee brought some of those dollars back into the bill.

The Finance Committee made changes likely to be favorable to some House members. For example, the panel added dollars to whittle down a waiting list for disabled people who want state-provided services in their homes.

But the committee also gutted bills important to a faction of House Republicans who consider themselves to be stalwart conservatives. Rather than embed changes to the state budget process in the state constitution, the committee basically turned the ideas into pilot programs that would disappear in a few years.

The state Senate meets Saturday to debate House Bill 1, the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. The bill then will return to the House for concurrence on changes. An agreement between the chambers must be reached by Thursday, when the session ends.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, the Finance Committee chairman, said the two chambers are talking to try to settle upon a budget that works for both sides of the Legislature.

“We’ve had conversations,” he said.

Donahue, R-Mandeville, declined to offer any insight into how the talks are going.